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The Deadly Legacy of Libby, Montana

Libby is a small town of about 2,600 residents located in the northwest of the state of Montana—the heart of Big Sky Country. Known for its panoramic landscapes and breathtakingly beautiful views, Libby also has a more sinister legacy that lies just beneath the surface: asbestos.

Small town, big problem

For nearly three decades, the major source of income for people in Libby, Montana was a vermiculite mine run by W.R. Grace & company. Operating between the years of 1963 and 1990, this mine was where many people residing in Libby worked the day away. Little did they know that the vermiculite deposits they were mining and processing ran alongside naturally-occurring asbestos deposits, leading to contamination on a grand scale.

Vermiculite mining dangers

During the years that the mine was functional, asbestos testing was not commonplace, so unbeknownst to the miners and residents of Libby, the vermiculite they worked with on a daily basis was tainted with asbestos fibers. Many of the people working in the mine and nearby processing plant were unwittingly exposing themselves to asbestos with jarring regularity, and in the decades to come, would ultimately pay the price for the work they did in the form of mesothelioma diagnoses or other asbestos-related diseases.

Not only miners suffered

The asbestos that silently contaminated Libby’s vermiculite production became airborne—whether by sitting out in the work yard where the wind could catch the fibers and carry them aloft to nearby homes and businesses, or on the clothing of those who worked in the mine and mill who would return home with the fibers attached to their work clothes. The workers bore the brunt of the dangers associated with the asbestos they inhaled or ingested, but their families and neighbors were also made to suffer due to the asbestos contamination.

Mesothelioma prevalence in Libby

Studies have attributed around 400 deaths in Libby to the asbestos within the vermiculite mine over the time since the mine’s operation and closure. With a town so small, this is a large chunk of its population—and more diagnoses are being made all the time, even after the mine’s closure and remediation efforts in recent years.

The Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the air in Libby is safe for breathing as of 2011, however, some homes involved in the remediation efforts may still pose an asbestos exposure risk in spite of having been previously treated. Residents both current and prospective wonder if enough can ever be done to make their town a safe place to live, a place without fear of developing malignant mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

The high price of low standards

In modern times, vermiculite manufacturing is often more strictly regulated, with the product having to be screened for asbestos prior to being released for industrial or private purchase and usage. However, during the time that the W.R. Grace mine was operating, such measures were not taken, meaning that tons of tainted vermiculite was mined, manufactured, shipped and sold during those 27 years of operation. Vermiculite itself was once thought of as being carcinogenic until it was discovered that vermiculite deposits and asbestos deposits tended to sit atop one another in the earth’s crust.

Now, scientists believe it is not the vermiculite that posed a danger after all, but the asbestos that was alongside it and thus, silently contaminating it. If a screening process for foreign or unwanted substance such as asbestos had been in place in vermiculite processing plants in the 1960s and beyond, perhaps hundreds of unnecessary deaths could have been prevented.

The dangers persist even now

Even today, living in Libby, Montana or any other place with a similarly dark legacy of asbestos contamination has its risks. With the asbestos lying just beneath the soil, erosion by elements such as wind or rain could bring the hazard—now supposed remediated—right back up to the surface, and right back into the air and water in the region.

Asbestos leaves its mark on the humans who handled it in the form of malignant mesothelioma, which has an extremely long latency period, meaning it may not be diagnosed until several decades after a person was exposed to it. That means people who were babies during the time the mine was open for business may now be receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis—during a time that is supposed to be the prime of their lives.

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