In 1999 the EPA began to investigate claims that an alarming number of residents of Libby, Montana were experiencing health problems from exposure to asbestos. This was linked to nearby mines and Libby was placed on the superfund list in 2002. In 2009 the EPA declared the situation in Libby a “Public Health Emergency” - a first in the agency’s history - citing the immediate need for additional funding from the national government. Over 400 people have died in this small mountain town due to an asbestos contamination, and an estimated 3,000 additional people have been diagnosed with diseases such as mesothelioma.
The Zonolite company first started mining operations in Libby in the 1920s, extracting the mineral vermiculite from the surrounding mountains. Vermiculite is a unique mineral that expands when exposed to heat and is used for a variety of purposes. Zonolite marketed vermiculite as the cheapest, most efficient way to insulate homes and experienced great success initially. During its operation, the mine in Libby was responsible for providing 80% of the country’s vermiculite supply and was successfully marketed to homeowners across America. Pure vermiculite is not dangerous, but unfortunately for the townspeople of Libby, the nearby deposit was contaminated by a naturally occurring form of asbestos called tremolite-actinolite.
By 1956 it was clear that Zonolite knew about the asbestos risk, but they did not disclose it to their employees. In 1963 when W. R. Grace and Company bought the mine in Libby, the effects of the asbestos were readily apparent in miners. A company report from 1965 contained a long list of employees that are listed as having “abnormal chests,” many of whom had already died from lung disease. People in the town were certainly aware that the large quantity of dust was linked to rising number of health problems, but when they asked about the mysterious “dust disease,” company officials always responded that the mine only contained tremolite. One miner remembered confronting a mining operator upon learning that tremolite is one of the most dangerous forms of asbestos. “That really upset me because we’re not geologists. There’s not a person up on that hill that new the definition for tremolite.”
The dust affected the entire community, not just the employees. When miners returned home from work, they were covered in toxic dust. Embraces with loved ones were unknowingly dangerous for their families. Waste and dust from the mines contaminated over one million cubic yards of soil, land on which schools and playgrounds were built. Surrounding groundwater was contaminated as well, carrying deadly fibers of asbestos into the intestines of the people of Libby. By the time the mine closed in 1990, it was too little too late for many of the town’s residents. Asbestos from the mine devastated Libby, killing up to 10% of the population, and afflicting many more.
W. R. Grace executives were acquitted in a trail brought against them by the federal government for knowingly causing harm to the people of Libby, in which the CEO stated "the company worked hard to keep the operations in compliance with the laws and standards of the day." The judge who presided in the case took issue with the prosecution’s “inexcusable dereliction of duty” in the handling of some evidence, and ultimately could not convict a company responsible for violating a law (the Clean Air Act) that was not in effect during the mine’s operation. Locals of Libby were disappointed in the verdict, but many admit that the company was not entirely to blame for the mine staying open for so long. Zonolite and Grace provided jobs for these people and are responsible in large part for the existence and identity of the town. One miner summed up the precarious situation like this, “I loved my job at Zonolite. I loved it so much that even if they had told me that I was endangering my life, I would probably have stayed. But if they’d told me it was killing my wife and my family too, I would have run like hell.”
The EPA initially divided Libby into zones for the cleanup operation. Today, certain zones have been deemed “clean,” while other, more isolated areas still report contamination. People in Libby still gather every year to remember the loved ones they have lost to disease. Some still demand compensation from the government, but the Superfund program is unable to offer any financial assistance to affected residents. By law, the EPA can only divert funds to cleanup operations. Others want to move on from the disaster, and look forward to a future where their small town is not defined by the asbestos tragedy.