Asbestos Tradgedy in Big Sky Country

. Welcome to Libby, Montana, population 2,691. In many ways, Libby is like any other small town. It sits nestled between bits of national forest, it has a train station and a few schools (go Loggers!), and for many years its economy was supported by the nearby logging and mining operations. But in other ways, Libby is very different.

Downtown Libby, Montana. Image: U.S. EPA.

  Libby has a heartbreaking story to tell.

For decades, the company W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine in Libby. Vermiculite is a mineral used for insulation and fireproofing in many building materials. (By the way, it’s also the material used for those little white balls in potting soil.)

The vermiculite mine in Libby provided … over 70% of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. between 1919 and 1990.

The vermiculite mine in Libby provided hundreds of jobs, as well as over 70% of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. between 1919 and 1990. And while vermiculite itself isn’t known to be harmful, the Libby mine also included a large deposit of something much more dangerous: asbestos.

The asbestos in Libby’s mine has caused 400 deaths — and counting.

Mining the vermiculite that lay alongside asbestos released harmful asbestos fibers into the air. The asbestos appeared as a fine dust that coated the entire mine — it goteverywhere — and caused harm not only to the mine workers, but to their friends, family, and other town residents as well.

But it’s never easy to criticize a company that plays such a huge role in a town’s life. In the 2004 documentary “Libby, Montana” by High Plains Films, one resident explained:

[W.R.] Grace was on the school board, Grace was on the hospital board, Grace owned the bank. And when you talked about dust control here and … what [the dust] was doing harmful to these people here, the first thing to come out of their mouth was ‘You gonna close that mine down, and you gonna put all these people out of work?’ Well you didn’t have very many friends here when you started talking like that.”

Mine manager Earl Lovick held town positions outside the mine. Images: “Libby, Montana.”

Fast-forward to today: An estimated 400 people in Libby have died from asbestos-related diseases, and more than 2,000 have been sickened by the asbestos. Hundreds more deaths are expected from these diseases, as they can take decades to manifest.

Records show that W.R. Grace knew about the adverse health effects from asbestos in the mine many years before the mine’s closure in 1990. Mine manager Earl Lovick, who died of asbestosis in 1999, testified to having knowledge of the presence and dangers of asbestos. (Check out 9:46 and 12:24 in the video below for clips of Lovick’s statements.)

The company has since paid out millions of dollars in settlement money for civil cases concerning the effects of the asbestos. In 2008, W.R. Grace faced thousands of personal injury claims and agreed to settle all present and future claims via a trust. The amount of money they’re doling out is nearly incomprehensible. But does it really make up for the deaths and the sickness?

Libby continues to heal … slowly but surely.

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded to widespread concerns surrounding the asbestos in Libby. The agency collected hundreds of samples from around Libby. In 2002, the site was declared a Superfund site, and cleanup began.

A 2014 draft of the EPA’s human health risk assessment states, “It is now possible to live and work in Libby without excessive exposure to asbestos. … Remaining asbestos needs to be safely managed.”

The asbestos risk may be under control (or close to it), but that doesn’t mean the people of Libby have forgotten how W.R. Grace changed the course of their town’s history.

An abbreviated version of the feature documentary, LIBBY, MONTANA.

View the complete film on iTunes –
https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/lib…

More about the Movie –
A small company town in Montana is beset by the worst case of a widespread toxic contaminant in U.S. history. For decades, the corporate conglomerate W. R. Grace knew what the residents of Libby did not: that they were being exposed to a deadly form of asbestos. All the while, the company allowed the spread of the contaminant all over the town — in the school grounds, the Little League baseball field, and in countless homes and yards. Now, the U.S. government has determined that nearly one quarter of the residents have some form of asbestos-related lung abnormality, and hundreds have already died of asbestos-related causes.  Libby, Montana is the story of the American dream gone horribly wrong.  Libby, Montana was broadcast on the national PBS Series, POV/The American Documentary. It was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy Award in 2008.

ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr, co-founded High Plains Films in 1992, and have collaborated on nearly 30 documentaries. Their most recent feature film, ALL THE LABOR premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2013. In 2012, their feature documentary FACING THE STORM: STORY OF THE AMERICAN BISON was broadcast on the national PBS series, Independent Lens, and won a Northwest Emmy Award for best documentary feature. In 2007, their documentary feature, LIBBY, MONTANA was broadcast nationally on the acclaimed PBS Series, POV, and was nominated for a National Emmy Award the following year. Other well-known High Plains Films include, BRAVE NEW WEST, KILLING COYOTE, VARMINTS, THIS IS NOWHERE, and THE NATURALIST.

Hawes-Davis is the founder of the annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Now in its eleventh year, the festival is consistently recognized as one of the world’s finest documentary cinema events. Both Carr and Hawes-Davis remain involved in festival programming and development.

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2 thoughts on “Asbestos Tradgedy in Big Sky Country

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