The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would be discontinuing operations in Libby, Montana sometime next year. The small town is home to one of the most devastating environmental health hazards in U.S. history and countless asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma.
Why Is Libby Important?
The story of Libby is poignant to anyone who has ever been affected by mesothelioma because the town is exemplary of the average patient. However, Libby is different because mesothelioma incidence in this town is astronomical relative to other regions in the country.
The town, with a population under 3,000 residents, is the site of hundreds of asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma. The rates of asbestos-related diseases being diagnosed in the town has been up to 80 times higher than other regions in the country.
Most of the people in the town worked for W.R. Grace until the company closed. It was a boon for the local economy, but none of the workers knew about the risk they were exposed to by the company’s mining operation.
This mine had been active since the first half of the twentieth century, before it was acquired by Grace in 1963. The company was aware of the risks involved, but didn’t shut down the operation until 1990.
Libby has an abundant supply of vermiculite in its rolling hills, which is useful for insulating materials. However, the mineral is also laden with asbestos.
Enter the EPA
The involvement of the EPA was necessary due to the extent of the asbestos contamination, which was serious enough to designate this as a legitimate major environmental disaster. Asbestos was spread to the homes of workers, shot into the wind by the mining operations and leftover (contaminated) dirt was even used for baseball fields in the town.
The situation in Libby was so out of control it was declared in 2009 as the only public health emergency caused by an environmental disaster. It’s also one of the largest Superfund projects in the country’s history. A Superfund is essentially a government program to clean up toxic waste.
The EPA has spent approximately half a billion dollars on the cleanup of Libby with former EPA director Christie Todd Whitman promising to remove all vermiculite.
What’s in Store for Libby’s Future?
Now that the EPA is leaving the site, questions are emerging about the next steps the town should take. How will the EPA wrap up the cleanup? Is the cleanup complete and thorough? Will the local government have to take over?
These are some of the questions being asked and some local officials seem doubtful that the cleanup is entirely polished off.
In fact, some asbestos may not be able to be removed and it is unlikely that all asbestos will ever be cleared from the area.
The Libby project manager from the EPA, Rebecca Thomas, has explained that it’s impossible to prevent every encounter with asbestos and that setting up a program to deal with those encounters is important.
Thomas and the EPA are currently working on developing a toxicity report on Libby asbestos that will be essential to creating a final risk assessment. The assessment will be the basis for additional cleanup when the EPA leaves and provide suggestions for state management.
Some residents are incensed that the EPA is going to leave behind any vermiculite at all.
Bruce Farling, the executive director of a Montana conservation group, points out that while residents are saying the EPA isn’t doing enough, the organization was unwelcome when it began its cleanup project.
“More than 200 people in Libby had died from asbestos-related disease, and hundreds more sickened, before somebody did something about it,” Farling said. “EPA has removed more than a million cubic yards of contaminated material around Libby.”
Oftentimes, opportunity can be borne through tragedy. The Libby Epidemiology Research Project has been collecting data on patients in the area and gaining a further understanding of how asbestos affects the body.
Additionally, the Center for Asbestos Related Disease provides Libby residents with special treatment and long-term screening. Their prevention and treatment research is something that benefits all patients with asbestos-related diseases.
The story of Libby residents has also brought awareness for a rare disease for which research is often underfunded. However, their story isn’t over yet.