For nearly 100 years, Libby, Montana, prospered through the vermiculite mining industry. That all changed in 1999, when the EPA was finally brought in after years of pleas from citizens and the media to help fix the tragedy that was devastating the small town. Though that was over 20 years ago, the town still suffers from the deadly illness that plagued them for decades.
Miners first discovered vermiculite in Libby in the late 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the Zolonite Company began mining the substance. The mines were purchased by W.R. Grace in 1963, and the town produced 80% of the world's vermiculite, which is used in insulation and as a soil conditioner. The mining created an explosion in jobs for Libby, but the vermiculite deep below the surface resided with another highly toxic substance -- asbestos.
When naturally-occuring asbestos is disturbed, it is released into the air as millions of microscopic needle-like strands. These strands settled over the community and worked their way into people's lungs, where it is impossible to get them out. The community was blissfully unaware that they were not breathing in clean Montana air, but instead inhaling toxic chemicals. The miners were not the only ones affected by the deadly dust -- their wives who shook off their dust-covered coats; their children who clung to their legs as they entered the home after work; and the majority of the citizens who used playgrounds, backyards, and roads, as W.R. Grace had donated leftover vermiculite to these and many more locations.
A fight for justice
Prosecutors sought to prove that W.R. Grace knew that they were killing miners and poisoning the town. Shockingly, though, in 2009, the company received an acquittal of charges that they knowingly harmed people. After mounting citizen, government, and media concern, the EPA began investigations. A year later, the town was put on the Superfund Program's National Priorities List, and workers were put in Libby to identify the contamination sources and begin cleanup. The cleanup project was one of the EPA's biggest ever -- over 3,000 sites were cleaned, a million cubic yards of dirt and other materials were replaced, and over $600 million of federal money was spent.
Health effects: "I don't think we'll see the last of these until 2030 and maybe longer"
The cleanup was completed in 2018, but there is still much work to be done. Thousands of Libby residents and W.R. Grace mine workers have filed lawsuits against the state for failing to warn them about the dangerous levels of asbestos. Hundreds of residents are still suffering from respiratory diseases brought on by the chemicals, and while the amount of people being diagnosed is slowing down, it shows no signs of stopping. Asbestos-related cancers have a long latency period -- 20-50 years. During W.R. Grace's trial, pulmonologist Dr. Alan Whitehouse stated "I don't think we'll see the last of these until 2030 and maybe longer."
Reports published on the respiratory diseases diagnosed since this incident have come to a similar conclusion. Libby's death rate from asbestos and respiratory diseases is 40-60x the national rate. Hundreds in the town have passed away, and more will continue to die.
As different as it may seem from other disasters, Libby's environmental catastrophe has many things in common with them. Human greed caused this disaster, and reinforces Mao Zedong's misinformed quote from a previous post -- "Make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way." This disaster, as nearly all the others, have shown that nature is a force to be reckoned with, and is best left alone.