A series of stories in the Daily Inter Lake, which serves Northwest Montana and which initially broke the story about widespread asbestos contamination of the town of Libby, Mont., in 1999, is featuring a series of stories about the town. The feature is related to a recent town hall style meeting organized by the University of Montana, which is seeking to get clarification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about just how much toxicity remains in the town.
The town hall meeting, which was held Dec. 6, featured a panel discussion about the deadly fallout from town’s vermiculite asbestos mine, which was operated for years by W.R. Grace & Company. Even those who didn’t work in the mine were exposed to asbestos, as dust from the mine covered the surrounding area, railroad tracks and roads used to transport the materials. Asbestos was even used as filler for gardens and ballparks.
According to the Daily Inter Lake report, more than 300 deaths have been linked to asbestos exposure from the vermiculite mine. A special health clinic established by the EPA after the story broke about the widespread asbestos disease affecting Libby area residents is currently treating about 2,800 patients with varying levels of asbestos disease.
Dr. Brad Black, who oversees patient care at the clinic, called the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), says it’s impossible to really determine how many people have been affected by asbestos in Libby, because around 80,000 people “came and went in Libby while the mine was operating,” the paper reports.
Because of the long latency period of asbestos disease – which includes conditions such as asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lungs that impedes lung function and limits breathing, and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or, more rarely, the abdomen or heart – which is sometimes as long as 30 or 40 years, Black estimates cases will continue to emerge well into the future, through the year 2030.
Since the asbestos contamination of Libby was brought to light, it has been a roller-coaster ride for area residents. The EPA has spent more than $206 million to date to clean up residential and commercial properties. In June, Libby was declared a public health emergency, which is the first time the agency has made such a determination under the 1980 Superfund law. This will allow more money to be put into the town’s cleanup efforts.
However, there are still lingering questions about just how effective these cleanup efforts really are. The EPA has divided the Libby Superfund site into eight geographical units, and has so far only completed cleanup on two of those units. However, some scientists argue that the type of asbestos affecting Libby – amphibole – is much more toxic than chrysotile asbestos, and that cleanup efforts are being conducted using old research on the wrong type of asbestos.
The Daily Inter Lake reports that EPA officials have admitted they are using toxicology assessments from 1985 data on less toxic asbestos, not Libby asbestos. This is despite a more recent study completed in 2003, which “established exposure benchmarks for mesothelioma and lung cancer based on asbestos epidemiologic studies,” the news agency reports.
According to the paper, federal government risk assessment standards say cleanup efforts are necessary when there is evidence of one death per 10,000 people. In Libby, where the population is around 10,000 people, there have already been 31 deaths just from mesothelioma. This doesn’t even take into account the suffering and death from other asbestos-related diseases.
The asbestos contamination also has been a see-saw on the legal front. In May, W.R. Grace & Co. and several of its top leaders were acquitted of criminal charges related to the widespread asbestos disease affecting its residents. Nearly 800 people still have pending civil suits against the company, which have been delayed by bankrupcy claims on the part of Grace. The company is expected to emerge from bankruptcy in January.
Testimony resulting from the bankruptcy trial in October revealed that there is a 59 percent probability of death for Libby residents exposed to asbestos dust.
“No other place on the planet has that,” the Daily Inter Lake quotes attorney John Heberling, who is representing asbestos clients.
This is a fascinating and tragic series of stories, and I encourage you to visit the Daily Inter Lake online to read the full series. It includes a feature on Gayla Benefield, who, along with compatriot Les Skramstad, began the campaign to expose the Libby contamination and lobby for justice for the town. Here are just a few of the links:
What is a safe dose for Libby?
What’s next for Libby?
Asbestos victims try to stay upbeat
Advocate’s work for asbestos victims spans 35 years
Grace lawsuit claimants still in limbo