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A Town Choking to Death

THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

'We're not America's Chernobyl,' says mayor of Libby, Mont. But it's close. A mine's asbestos is slowly killing hundreds.

September 07, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIBBY, Mont. — The legacy of industrial poisoning in America is a grim one: There are the copper mines of Butte, Mont., that created a poisonous pit more than a mile wide and 1,800 feet deep. There is Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, once so polluted it caught fire. There is New York's Love Canal. But for sheer human misery, there rarely has been anything like Libby.

At least 200 people have died because they worked at the Zonolite Mountain vermiculite mine, or had a husband who worked there, or jumped as children from ropes into fluffy piles of vermiculite, or played on the high school running track or the elementary school ice rink, both filled with mine tailings.

At the grocery store, you're likely to run into one or two Libby residents with oxygen boosters slung over their shoulders, connected to plastic tubes running into their nose. The ones who can't get to the store sit home next to their oxygen tanks. They struggle to get a breath of air in lungs that can't expand anymore, they cough until they vomit, they peer from behind oxygen masks through eyes filled with fear. They wait for their children to show signs of the disease. Many already do.

Asbestos--the invisible, deadly fiber that laces the vermiculite at Libby--seems a problem from the past. Many people assume it has been banned. Wrong on both counts. And the fact that asbestos lurks in the lungs for up to 40 years before sickening and killing means that mortality rates still are expanding, decades after the world first realized asbestos could kill.

Annual claims for work-related asbestos exposure hit 50,000 last year--more than double the rate of the mid-1990s--with medical and environmental cleanup claims projected to reach $200 billion in the U.S. by 2030.

Libby is the latest asbestos crisis to come to light--exposed less than two years ago by a group of residents, their lawyers and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It also--in the way asbestos disease has afflicted much of an entire town--is one of the worst. The small northwest Montana town's 2,700 residents have the distinction, said Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Chris Weis, of experiencing "the most severe residential exposure to a hazardous material this country has ever seen."

Death rates from asbestosis in Libby are 40 to 60 times the national average. And Libby has stunned toxicologists with evidence for the first time that asbestos, long known as an occupational hazard, has affected large numbers of people who never worked with asbestos--or lived with anyone who did.

A wide-ranging health survey released last month showed that at least 18%, and possibly as many as 30%, of the 5,590 residents of Libby and surrounding rural communities had lung abnormalities. Many had no exposure to asbestos other than breathing Libby's air. A total of 48% of former mine workers had lung problems.

With cleanup costs estimated at $50 million for the town alone--not counting the massive contamination at the old mine itself--the EPA will decide over the next few months whether to add Libby to the federal Superfund program, which provides aid for the nation's most polluted industrial sites. As an alternative, W.R. Grace & Co., which operated the mine from 1963 until it closed in 1990, has offered to do the cleanup itself.

Grace, a $1.6-billion chemical and building materials company, has already paid $20 million in individual claims and spent more than $2 million cleaning up its plants in Libby. The company has pledged millions more to pay medical bills for anyone in Libby diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness and $250,000 a year to the local hospital for health screenings.

EPA administrator Christie Whitman, scheduled to visit the town today, also will take on the difficult question of whether Superfund cleanup money can be used in Libby to remove Zonolite home insulation, which was installed in anywhere from 800,000 to 10 million attics across America. Libby attics are eligible for Superfund money only if the EPA finds a public health emergency or if someone not living in the home could be exposed to dangerous quantities of asbestos.

The extent of asbestos contamination in this town is hard to grasp. While it's perfectly safe to breathe Libby's mountain air--the mine's processing plants no longer belch asbestos fibers into the atmosphere--all you have to do is scratch in the dirt in some places to find it.

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for decades in insulation, soil conditioning, fireproofing compounds and fertilizers. While vermiculite itself is nonhazardous, its ore is sometimes threaded with tremolite, a rare and extremely toxic form of asbestos. Milling removed most, but not all, of the tremolite. And Libby's ore had a higher-than-normal tremolite content.

In Libby, vermiculite was free. Residents drove away with pickup loads to distribute in their gardens as mulch and their attics and chicken coops as insulation.

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