Libby, Montana: Asbestos Ground Zero

Libby, Montana has a long history as a mining and logging town, but the area’s economic security came in 1919 when vermiculite was discovered in the area. The material was highly valued for being an effective insulator: it is extremely lightweight and generally harmless and is familiar to gardeners as an ingredient in potting soil.

Unfortunately, vermiculite’s safety is offset by what it is found in proximity to. It is mined from igneous rock, and deposits are often interspersed with asbestos. In the case of the Libby, Montana vermiculite quarry, the vermiculite was contaminated with tremolite, a hook-shaped fiber that is known as the most dangerous form of asbestos. In the years since the mine was first opened, it is estimated that at least one out of every forty residents has died as a result of asbestos exposure, and there’s a good chance that the numbers are much higher than that.

The Mine’s History

When vermiculite was first discovered, it was operated by a local company called Zonolite. The area where the quarry was discovered was named Zonolite Mountain, and the company ran all operations until 1963 when it was purchased by W.R. Grace & Co. Even before Grace took over mining operations, the dangers presented by the mine were known to its owners. Company records reveal an internal memo from 1955 in which executives referenced “the dangers of exposing our employees to asbestos.” In 1959 the company started ordering chest X-rays of employees, and though they found that roughly one third came back with “abnormal” results and signs of asbestosis and other lung diseases, none of the employees were told what the films had shown.

During the same time period, state agencies were also beginning to express alarm. Between 1956 and 1964, several reports were issued about the dangers posed by asbestos from the Libby mine, revealing that instead of things improving they were getting substantially worse over time. By 1963 asbestos concentrations in the mine were measured at five million particles per cubic foot of air, an amount equal to six times the maximum level allowed. Rather than acting on the report, the mine’s executives marked it confidential and filed away.

By 1963, the mine was sold to W.R. Grace. Once company executives learned that their new acquisition was also a source of asbestos, they were eager to make money from it, but did nothing to protect their employees or the rest of the town, which was also being exposed to asbestos dust on a daily basis. Though the company monitored employee health and administered X-rays on an annual basis, they did not provide any information on what they found. Company records from 1969 indicate that 65 percent of those who worked at the mine for 20 years or more had some type of lung disease, though none of those who were identified were told that there was anything wrong. In fact, in the face of warnings from local physicians and internal studies on asbestos’ effects, the company took steps to hide evidence supporting the relationship between tremolite asbestos and mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Too Little, Too Late

Since it first began operations, the Libby vermiculite mine sent materials to be processed locally in a “dry mill”. The air was so thick with asbestos dust that workers couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, and when the mill was swept out, it was literally thrown down the mountainside into the air and the town below. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 pounds of asbestos were released into the region’s environment each day, with some settling around the mine and much of it blanketing the town. Making matters worse, the asbestos-contaminated material that had been processed was shipped out in open railcars and carried in open dump trucks, spreading contamination wherever those conveyances traveled. Much of the material remained in the local area, where it was bagged at a plant immediately adjacent to baseball fields. Piles of vermiculite were left in open lots, and people would dig through it to take home for insulation while their children slid down the piles as if they were mounds of snow.

By the 1970s, Grace converted the dry mill to a wet processing operation, where water was used to spray the vermiculite in order to cut down on dust. Unfortunately, that measure was instituted too late to have much of an impact, and the company rejected a proposal to spent $373,000 on showers, protective covering and other expenses designed to allow workers to clean off the dust before they headed home to the town and their families.

Understanding the Long-Term Impact of Asbestos on the Town of Libby, Montana

Roughly 10% of Libby’s population has died from asbestos-related diseases since the time that the mine first opened, and people continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and other illnesses today. The company was sued by the federal government but was acquitted of charges of knowingly harming the people of Libby, as well as of covering up their wrongdoing. However, the company was ordered to pay to reimburse the federal government for both the costs of their environmental investigation and the subsequent cleanup of all asbestos contamination. Residents of Libby and former employees of the mine have filed thousands of lawsuits against the state of Montana, accusing the state of failing to warn of the dangers of the asbestos in the area. A $43 million settlement to be divided among 1,300 plaintiffs was approved in 2011, and another settlement of $25 million to be divided between 1,000 victims was resolved in early 2017.

For more information on asbestos and its role in a mesothelioma diagnosis, contact us today by filling out the form or call us at 1-800-763-9286. We’ll send you a free copy of our helpful guidebook.