MISSOULA — A $25 million settlement this week will do nothing to eliminate the physical pain suffered by more than 100 people awarded the money from the state of Montana for its secrecy in not informing people in Lincoln County that they were being exposed to high levels of asbestos contaminating a vermiculite mine near the tiny town of Libby.
The agreement reached on Wednesday is the second major payout the state has made because in the 1950s and 1960s, its mine and safety inspections failed to warn miners, their families and residents of the communities in the northwest corner of the state that they were all at risk from enormously high levels of asbestos-ladened dust spewing from the mine.
Five years ago, in an identical suit, the state paid out $43 million to another 1,000 plaintiffs whose symptoms of asbestos-caused disease had surfaced by that time.
Hundreds of pages of mine safety reports reviewed by Lee Newspapers detailed that workers in all areas of the sprawling pit mine were receiving enormous exposure to asbestos fibers contaminating the vermiculite ore being dug out of the terraced mine. Almost all the reports were clearly marked “Confidential. Do not release,” and were sent only to the mine owners and operators.
Physicians in Libby who were paid in part or fully by the mine owners, said the results were never shared with them. One physician, who figured out something was seriously wrong at the mine, left town after mine operators who routinely contributed to the community hospital forced the facility to remove the concerned physician’s privileges to treat patients.
It’s not as if the inspectors didn’t do an adequate job in identifying the hazards. They had repeatedly called for protective masks, better ventilating and dust suppression systems, showers and changing rooms to be made available so contamination from the mine would not be brought into the worker’s homes, thus endangering the miner’s spouses and children.
For the most part, these safety suggestions were ignored. And, subsequent medical records and death certificates documented the illness or death of scores of family members.
Few miners, if any, learned of the warnings. Yet the dangers were clearly visible in the town where kids routinely wrote in the heavy coating of dust that covered the cars.
The lung-destroying asbestos fiber contaminates the country’s largest supply of vermiculite, a sprawling open pit mine six-miles outside Libby, in the state’s northwest corner. From 1919 until the mine was closed by W.R. Grace in 1990, it was the source of at least 85-percent of all vermiculite sold in the United States. But closed or not, hundreds of deaths and thousands of asbestos-like diseases were diagnosed throughout the country.
In 1999, after media reports of unexplained deaths and illnesses in the communities surrounding the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency flew a hotshot team of emergency responders into Libby to probe unreported hazard.
Nearly two decades later, EPA has just announced that the cleanup – with its almost $600 million price tag - is weeks from being officially over.
Today, after almost 17 years, the EPA and its contractors are still on the ground. Almost 8,000 homes and business in Libby and nearby Troy have been inspected for asbestos contamination. More than 2,500 structures, public parks and school grounds have been cleaned and paid for under Superfund.
But finally, EPA is ready to pull the plug. The agency has tried to tell the owners of more than 700 properties – still uninspected and thus uncleaned – that they have less than 90 days to invite EPA teams on their properties or get stuck with paying for their own cleanup should it be necessary.
After the cleanup, the EPA reported that asbestos levels in the air are about 100,000 times lower than when the mine was running and the agency declared the small town “safe.”
There is more litigation on the horizon. A long-awaited trial between Libby’s asbestos victims and BNSF Railway, which transported vermiculite from the mine to processing sites across the country, was scheduled to begin new week in Great Falls, but has been postponed until late spring or summer.