On June 17, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a public health emergency in Libby, Montana because of decades of asbestos exposure from a nearby vermiculite mine. It is the first public health emergency to be declared under the 1980 Superfund law, which governs sites contaminated by hazardous substances. The EPA says that hundreds of cases of asbestos-related disease have been reported in the town, with a population of about 2,600.

Contaminated Town

Libby, a small town in northwestern Montana, was the site of a vermiculite mine and processing plant which operated from 1919 until 1990. The vermiculite from the mine, which was widely used in home insulation, was contaminated with naturally-occurring asbestos fibers. The entire town was exposed to asbestos from the large amount of vermiculite dust that the plant blew into the air every day, and from contaminated mine waste that was used in building projects throughout Libby, including an ice skating rink and several school tracks. The town currently has between 40 and 80 times the national average of asbestos-related deaths, and its lung cancer mortality rate is 30% higher than health officials would normally expect.

Decontamination Efforts

In May of 2009, W.R. Grace & Company, the owners of the mine since 1963, and three of its executives were acquitted on charges that they knowingly exposed Libby and the surrounding area to asbestos, and that they conspired to cover up asbestos-related deaths. Grace had previously agreed to pay the government $250 million for cleanup and decontamination expenses, in addition to paying the medical bills of many residents. So far, the EPA has decontaminated about 1100 homes, and plans on using some of the $125 million set aside for cleanup efforts to decontaminate another 900 properties in Libby and Troy, another small town nearby.

Asbestos Related Disease

Diseases from asbestos exposure have been blamed for over 200 deaths in Libby since the late 1990s, and hundreds more residents are currently ill. The Department of Health and Human Services agreed to make $6 million available to the local hospital to help pay for the treatment of people with asbestos-related medical problems. When asbestos mineral fibers are inhaled, they can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

Published November 17, 2011 by