On the surface, Libby, Montana is a picturesque small town in northwest Montana. It is only about 65 miles from the Canadian border. However, beneath that innocent exterior lies a toxic substance: asbestos. This town rose to fame due to the efforts of documentary film makers who documented what had happened and the ongoing efforts to contain the disaster. Most people associate the word disaster with a natural act like an earthquake or a hurricane. In reality, a disaster can be manmade.
Here are some critical facts to know about the Libby, Montana asbestos disaster.
The problems in Libby started because of local vermiculite mining. Vermiculite is a natural mineral, which has the ability to expand when it heats up. It has many uses as a molding material, brake material, seed germination, and other applications related to agriculture and heat proofing. The problem in Libby was not due to the vermiculite itself. The natural asbestos developed in the same natural surroundings as the vermiculite. During the mining process, the asbestos came down when the vermiculite did. That fact is what started the asbestos contamination that now haunts Libby, Montana.
The asbestos found in Libby has a unique structure. There are six forms of asbestos generally recognized: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. The type of asbestos found in Libby is a combination of different minerals, including tremolite and actinolite. Its chemical structure now has its own name: Libby amphibole asbestos. Today, according to some sources, it is the most toxic formation of asbestos found to date.
This uniqueness also seems to show up in the symptoms of people exposed to it. The biggest factor for Libby residents is the high incidence of pleural fibrosis, or scarring of the pleural lining surrounding the lungs. It restricts breathing. Unlike many asbestos sites, Libby does not have a high incidence of lung damage due to the asbestos exposure.
Contamination in Libby covers the entire town as well as surrounding areas. The mining process for vermiculite went unchecked for decades. Blasting in the mines as well as the movement of the vermiculite spread the asbestos fibers throughout the community. Over time, it spread to surrounding areas as well. The current map for EPA coverage includes the neighboring Kootenai National Forest as well as down the Kootenai River. It ends in the neighboring community of Troy.
The presence of so much asbestos was a known factor before 1999 when the EPA came in. For generations in the town of Libby, people died of lung diseases. Starting in the 1980s, several medical studies into the population of Libby identified a high incident of asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestos related pleural disease among workers in the vermiculite mine. After the mine shut down in 1990, the incidence of these diseases did not abate. In fact, documentation of these diseases increased in people with no contact to the mine or mining operations.
The problems with the asbestos go on even 10 years later. Over the past decade plus, the EPA has been working alongside community factions to abate the situation. Screening happened in 3600 properties in Libby, with 1200 additional in neighboring Troy. By 2010, cleanup of almost 1500 buildings is complete. Workers removed almost 1,000,000 cubic yards of contaminated material. In 2009, contaminated wood chip material caused concerns. The challenges of Libby continue through today.