In Montana Town, a Shut Mine Leaves an Open Wound

Originally published here (The Wall Street Journal)

By: Dionne Searcey

LIBBY, Mont.—Household after household here has packed up and moved in with relatives or to local motels while government workers in hazardous-materials suits and booties take over their homes.

Wearing respirators and gloves, the workers wipe down antiques, Christmas decorations, doll collections and photographs. They vacuum out attics and crawl spaces and dig up lawns. They sometimes stay for weeks.

After 14 years, and possibly many more to go, a total of 1,890 homes have been cleaned out, all in an effort to rid the town of a deadly substance: asbestos fibers.

The fibers came from a local mining operation run by W.R. Grace & Co. in this valley town tucked along the base of the Cabinet Mountains. They drifted through the air to sicken and fatally poison not just workers but people who simply lived here, according to government health officials. The entire town and its surroundings have been designated a federal Superfund site and are being cleaned both outdoors and indoors, at a tab that has reached $400 million.

“They’re feeding guinea pigs, fish and horses, and taking care of house plants and starter tomatoes while families are relocated,” said Richard Mylott, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has replaced Grace as the town’s biggest employer.

But the duration of the cleanup has been taxing on the town’s psyche. The EPA, more accustomed to dealing with asbestos exposure in workplaces, has taken years to sort out how toxic Libby’s asbestos is so it can determine how far to go with its cleanup mission. Earlier this year, the EPA’s inspector general criticized the agency for communication failures with residents and for delays in coming up with toxicity assessments. Residents wonder, for instance, why orange netting is all that separates neighbors from workers in hazardous-materials gear completing a cleanup next door.

“The community is ready to get beyond this,” said Libby resident LeRoy Thom, a former Grace employee. Mr. Thom has asbestos disease in his lungs and serves on several community boards aimed at helping the cleanup and patients like him.

W.R. Grace, a Maryland-based specialty-chemicals company, bought the Libby mine from Zonolite Co. in 1963 as a source of vermiculite, a mineral used in Zonolite-brand home insulation. But the mine was contaminated with a particularly toxic form of asbestos that contains needlelike fibers that can lodge in people’s lungs. Doctors say that over the years this can inflict not just cancer but lung scarring that in some people can lead to difficulty breathing or death.

W.R. Grace has long said it didn’t know of the hazards of the mine and that it took steps to reduce dust and offer health care to workers. It has said the operation, which it closed 23 years ago, was in compliance with the standards and laws of its time.

In 2008, W.R. Grace paid a $250 million civil settlement to pay for Libby’s cleanup, and a year later it was acquitted at a criminal trial of conspiring to hide the environmental risks. Medical officials who have studied the situation in Libby estimate 400 residents have died and more than 2,000 have been sickened from exposure to asbestos released from the Libby operation. At its criminal trial, a Grace expert witness accused doctors of misdiagnosing patients.

Asked to comment, a company spokesman pointed to what he called an “exhaustive public record on this subject” that can provide “perspective to people who might be unduly alarmed by allegations that already have been addressed in court.”

W.R. Grace has moved on—and is thriving—bolstered by its construction business and work in emerging markets. Its share price has climbed nearly 50% in the past year and more than 6,000% since April 2001, when, awash with asbestos lawsuits tied in part to its Libby operation, it filed for bankruptcy protection from which it expects to emerge early next year.

Through its bankruptcy process, Grace is on track to establish a multibillion-dollar trust fund to be tapped by those claiming they were harmed by its products regardless of where they were exposed to them.

The town of Libby is trying to move on, too. Children are taught how to spot stray chunks of asbestos-tinged material and leave it alone, and homeowners heed warnings to hose off their garden tools after digging in their lawns. The EPA says the asbestos in the air is 10,000 times lower than when the mining operation was in full swing.

Still, the damage done in Libby, a town of nearly 2,700 in a postcard-perfect valley about 60 miles south of the Canadian border, is seen in people walking along Mineral Avenue trailed by pale green oxygen tanks tethered to their nostrils. The telltale cough at times can be heard while patrons eat huckleberry flapjacks at the Libby Café. Trucks rumble through town, returning a million tons of vermiculite-tainted debris to be dumped back at the mine from where it came, just on the outskirts of town.

Many homes in Libby were outfitted with Grace’s Zonolite insulation, and the company even offered vermiculite free to residents who hauled it by the truckload to sprinkle in lawns to loosen the hard soil, residents said. Vermiculite was so ingrained in Libby’s social fabric that one woman said her grandmother used it as a baking powder substitute in cookies.

The cleanup has caused confusion among residents who wonder why workers are leaving asbestos-tinged insulation in walls but are removing it from their attics. The EPA says asbestos in walls is safe as long as it isn’t disturbed and that the orange netting near homes designates a space as unsafe, noting that workers wet down the area to prevent airborne fibers. The EPA’s Mr. Mylott said the agency didn’t agree with most of the inspector general’s criticisms about its communication with residents.

The agency’s study of the toxicity of Libby’s asbestos has been hamstrung by internal delays and resistance from industry. But there are hopeful signs: Some of the key assessments are scheduled to be finalized next summer, and residents are optimistic that will pave the way for the end of the cleanup.

“EPA’s goal has always been securing a post-cleanup future for the community,” said Mr. Mylott. “The fact that people are talking about the reality of such a future is a testimony to how far we’ve come.”