Libby, Montana, rests between two mountain ranges in the very northwestern corner of the state. The town, surrounded by various waterways and mountains, once enjoyed a healthy logging industry. That all changed in 1919 when Edward N. Alley discovered vermiculite (also known as Zonolite), a mineral used primarily to insulate and fireproof, in the mountains about seven miles out of town.
The vermiculite mine, originally called Rainy Creek, was something like a modern-day gold-rush. By 1926, Alley had the vermiculite mine set up to process up to 100 tons of the mineral per day. The town, enthusiastic about the new source of revenue, focused its efforts on mining vermiculite.
By the time W.R. Grace & Company took over the mine in 1963, the mine was producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world. Upon acquiring the mine, the company allegedly learned that vermiculite was causing respiratory complications for people in town. If it knew of the dangers of vermiculite, that information was kept from the workers and townspeople.
For over six-plus decades, residents mined and milled vermiculite. In the process, asbestos fibers in the mineral became airborne. As the fibers lodge themselves in the lining of the lungs, they make microscopic cuts that, over decades, can lead to a specific type of cancer called mesothelioma.
The deadly dust found no shortage of ways to enter the lungs of the townspeople, regardless of their proximity to the raw mineral. Mine workers breathed in the dust and carried it home on their clothing. Other particles became airborne: falling like invisible, toxic snow on the town below.
Not only was the mineral spread naturally, W.R. Grace & Company used leftover vermiculite in heavily trafficked parts of the town such as playgrounds and roadways, further spreading the fibers.
With the discovery of vermiculite came the beginning of an onslaught of asbestos-related diseases that have plagued the town. Even though the mine closed in 1990, asbestos-related diseases are still being diagnosed.
Help for the victims
Ninety-nine years and at least 400 asbestos-related deaths later, eight federal grants in the amount of $2.5 million each have been provided to supply asbestos-related healthcare to those effected in the town. The grants continue to fund medical care for “… anybody who was in Libby for at least 6 months, at least 10 years ago,” according to Montana Public Radio.
While the federal government is reacting to this ongoing public health emergency, the damage from asbestos exposure is already done. Because asbestos-related conditions take decades to reveal themselves, many more victims could exist.