The Environmental Protection Agency –EPA- is charged with protecting the health of people as well as the environment, air, water and land. Together with local agencies they assess, evaluate an area then act. Sites can be declared Super Fund sites that designate them for cleanup. Since the beginning of this process there has been one site that conditions have deemed it be designated as a public health emergency. On June 17th 2009, the director of the EPA determined that conditions at the Libby Asbestos site constitute a public health emergency the first and only Public Health emergency from an environmental disaster.
The idyllic place in northwestern Montana was poisoning the residents. For decades in the mountains and hills of Libby the residents made a living working at the mining operations of asbestos initially for the Zonolite Company. In 1963 W.R. Grace purchased the mining operation and greatly increased production. Production did not stop until 1990. While the mine was operating it is estimated that it produced about 80% of the world’s supply of vermiculite. Vermiculate was used in building insulation and as a soil fertilizer. The vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with a toxic form of naturally occurring asbestos called tremolite-actinolite series asbestos.
The human suffering that the people of Libby have endured continues today. In 2000 the population of Libby was 4,500 people, at that time, nearly one-third of the population, some as young as 10 years old had developed asbestos related diseases from exposure to tremolites- contaminated vermiculites. Doctor Brad Black came to Libby in 1977 as a Pediatrician. He has been a supporter of his neighbors and an advocate for continued specialized health care for the citizens of Libby. In 2000 he and fellow concerned citizens, formed the Center for Asbestos Related Disease Foundation- CARD. The work of the foundation includes research and treatment of the citizens of Libby. CARD and Dr. Black are an integral part of the Libby Epidemiology Research Program that is being conducted in conjunction with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai New York.
There are 3 books that detail the tragedy of Libby: Fatal Deception The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America- Michael Bowker, Wasting Libby, The True Story of How the WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to Die, Andrea Peacock: An Air That Kills- How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal, Andrew Schneider.
The period between exposure to asbestos and symptoms of mesothelioma can be anywhere from 15 to 50 years. The amount of exposure and when the exposure happened are all being studied.
Libby Montana continues to be de-contaminated by the EPA. Residents continue to be diagnosed with asbestos related diseases at the CARD clinic. Research continues, patients are being followed and cared for, and asbestos continues to be legal in the United States.