About two years ago, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broke new ground when it declared its first-ever public health state of emergency for two neighboring Montana towns. The declaration was made in response to the town residents’ mass exposure to asbestos, which has been attributed to a long-running vermiculite mine and the negligence of its owners.
For several decades, W.R. Grace & Co. operated a vermiculite mine near Libby, Montana, a small town about 40 miles from the Canadian border. As a result, Libby spent several years under a blanket of asbestos dust, causing widespread illness throughout the region. Although the mine closed in 1990, thousands of people have contracted mesothelioma, with approximately 1,750 injuries and 400 deaths attributed to the asbestos.
In 2001, Grace filed for bankruptcy after being named in over 100,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, including several filed by residents of Libby and nearby Troy, Montana. In 2002, a Montana judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against the state of Montana by over 1,000 residents, who alleged that the state knew of the health dangers from the mine but failed to warn residents. However, the Montana Supreme Court overturned the ruling, and earlier this month, the same judge approved a $27 million settlement between the state and the 1,128 plaintiffs to the case.
Under the terms of the 2009 EPA public health emergency, the EPA plans to spend $125 million during the next five years to clean up the asbestos and care for the victims of exposure in Libby and Troy. It will reportedly conduct house-by-house cleanups of asbestos dust and offer increased health care for those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Source: USA Today, “Montana asbestos victims awarded $27M,” Michael Winter, Sept. 16, 2011