Before 1999, the tiny town of Libby, Montana — population less than 3,000 in the far northwest corner of the state — ranked unknown to most Americans.
That all changed 20 years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally responded to cries from local citizens to take notice of the tragedy devastating their community.
Now, residents reflect on the immense loss that friends, family, and neighbors have experienced as a result of what they describe as greed and indifference by big business — and what the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency.
Libby Still Feeling Effects of Country’s Worst Asbestos Disaster
Jinnifer Mariman grew up in Libby. Now, she’s an attorney for a law firm that has handled much of the litigation associated with the disaster involving the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine that spewed asbestos all over the rural community poisoning its inhabitants for decades.
“I was glad I was sitting down the first time I read the names. It wasn’t just a client list, it was my hometown,” said Mariman referring to when she first began her work with the local law firm.
According to the Great Falls Tribune, it’s unknown exactly how many have died as a result of the catastrophe, but at least 400 deaths have been documented. And more than 2,400 residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.
This includes Mariman’s school teacher, her dad’s longtime friend, another family friend, a few classmates, and a neighbor.
While over 2,000 Libby residents have filed suit with Mariman’s law firm over the last 25 years, she expresses that financial retribution is only a small consolation.
“Usually what we can recover is money, but no amount of money is going to make your lungs work better. There is no amount of money that is going to bring your loved ones back,” she said.
No one knows this better than Gayla Benefield.
She lost both her parents and her husband to an asbestos-related disease and is on oxygen for her own diagnosis. Four out of her five children also suffer from asbestos-related diseases.
“I’m almost numb to losing people now,” she admits.
The town has Benefield to thank for getting the story of what was happening in Libby to the outside world in 1999. She worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Schneider who wrote exposés revealing the width and breadth of a disaster that enveloped an entire town.
Libby, Montana Asbestos Catastrophe Overview
Gold miners first discovered vermiculite in Libby in 1881, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the Zolonlite Company began mining the substance.
W.R. Grace purchased the mine in 1963 and at its peak produced a whopping 80% of the world’s supply of vermiculite, which is used prolifically in building insulation and as a soil conditioner.
While the mining operation proved a boon for Libby, providing industry and jobs for the tiny hamlet and its residents, the vermiculite that laid deep below the surface in Lincoln County resided with another substance — one that was lethal.
That substance, naturally-occurring asbestos, when disturbed and unearthed on a daily basis through mining operations, freed untold billions of microscopic strands into the air. These asbestos fibers eventually settled on the small community for decades, like a mostly invisible and deadly snow.
In the meantime, townspeople from every walk of life breathed in what they thought was fresh Montana air, unaware that cancer-causing strands permeated the atmosphere and ended up lodged in their lungs.
“A miner knew if he was killed his family would be taken care of, but they never thought for a moment they were harming their children or their wives. Then people started coming forward with lung problems who had nothing to do with the mine,” explained Benefield.
Prosecutors sought to prove that W.R. Grace knew they were killing miners and poisoning their families and those in the community. But in 2009, shockingly, the company received an acquittal of charges that it knowingly harmed people.
Meanwhile, the EPA began investigations of the area in 1999 after mounting citizen, local government, and media concern. A year later, the site was placed on the Superfund Program’s National Priorities List — eventually placing staff in Libby to supervise and execute the clean-up of an entire town, including a contaminated mine site.
In 2009, the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency so victims of asbestos-related disease could receive federal health care assistance.
EPA Wraps Up Libby, Montana Asbestos Cleanup
Only one year ago, 19 years after Benefield and others brought it to national attention, the EPA completed cleanup of the Montana town. The agency investigated roughly 8,100 properties within the Superfund site and removed deadly asbestos from over 2,600 of them. They report they’ve removed more than one million cubic yards of contaminated soil.
But eradicating asbestos-related diseases among Libby-ites won’t cease any time soon thanks to the long latency period of asbestos-related cancers, such as mesothelioma, that can take 20-50 years to manifest.
Pulmonologist Dr. Alan Whitehouse summed it up when he testified at the trial of W.R. Grace, “I don’t think we’ll see the last of these until 2030 and maybe longer.”
Even so, Mariman’s colleague, senior partner Roger Sullivan, says they’re finally seeing a decline in new cases.
“I think I speak for all of us here when I say it would be a good thing if another client suffering from asbestos-related disease didn’t have to walk through these doors,” he said.