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The Sad Tale
Of Libby, Montanta

UE News, May 2000

By David Kotelchuck

At the foothills of Zonolite Mountain sits the town of Libby, Montana, population 2,700. It has been a relatively prosperous town among the depressed mining towns of western Montana. The key to its economic success has been vermiculite, a mineral mined on the mountain, and sold under the trade name Zonolite for use in gardening and home insulation.

But there was price to pay for this economic prosperity. The vermiculite contained a few percent of toxic tremolite asbestos as a contaminant, and over the years residents suffered from cases of lung disease. Beginning in the 1980s a number of lawsuits were filed against the owners. Now, as the result of a series of newspaper articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Kalispell, Montana Daily Inter Lake paper, the work-related deaths and injuries are a matter of public record.

The Seattle newspaper estimates that at least 192 people in the Libby, Montana area have died of asbestos-related illnesses over the last 40 years! These estimates were based upon court records and interviews with families and the patients’ doctors. Another 375 persons in the area have been diagnosed with illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis likely to have been caused by exposure to tremolite asbestos dust.

There is yet no reliable estimate of the number of persons outside of the area who have been affected by handling the asbestos-tainted vermiculite, but we know that the Zonolite produced in Libby was regularly sent to 60 processing plants across North America, where it was further blended, packaged and shipped to gardening and insulation suppliers. Clearly the people routinely handling the material at these plants were at risk.


The mine in Libby was open for 67 years before closure in 1990. For its first 40 years the owners were the Zonolite Company, and for the last 27 years W.R Grace and Company. Yes, this is the same W.R. Grace & Co. which was a defendant in the infamous Woburn, Mass. case reported in the best-selling book Civil Action, later made into a motion picture starring John Travolta.

Overall, including the Libby suits, W.R. Grace is a defendant in 105,000 asbestos-related lawsuits across the country, the New York Times reports.

How could this problem lie buried for so long? This is a question being asked and answered right now by Libby residents and others. Certainly local doctors who treated the lung patients knew about it. Over 15 years ago, a local physician, Dr. Richard Irons, became so concerned about the many cases of asbestosis he was seeing in his patients that he met with the plant health and safety director, and also traveled to Grace offices in Cambridge, Mass. to request money for new equipment to allow him to study the problem. As the doctor’s colleague said in a recent interview, the company told him to "leave it alone. They just dismissed him and did nothing"

For years Grace and other vermiculite and talc manufacturers have argued vigorously with OSHA and EPA that to regulate materials with just a small percentage of asbestos contaminant was regulatory overkill. After all, they argued, you can never achieve perfect purity in any natural or humanly produced product, so where do you "make the cut" and ignore contaminants below that level?

But what the manufacturers ignore — and OSHA ignores at its own risk — is that where the mineral is processed in massive amounts, even a small percentage of a contaminant in a mineral can result in huge amounts of toxics in the environment. This is exactly what happened in Libby. Now EPA acknowledges that at the height of its production, the ore-processing mill was spewing out 10,000 pounds of asbestos dust each day, which the wind was spreading over the town! It estimates that the pile of mineral tailings, the unused residue of the mining process, still contains over 5 billion pounds of asbestos. Remember the 10,000 pounds a day was just about one percent of the dust generated each day at the mine. No wonder older miners tell of working in a huge cloud of dust, unable at times even to see their hands.


After the Libby story broke, the EPA carried out a study of asbestos contamination in stores and homes due to Zonolite and other vermiculite products. It found 10 bags of Zonolite in one Seattle garden store. In two other stores asbestos fibers were found in vermiculite products now being sold by other manufacturers.

If you have used some in the garden — it was and is a popular garden product — you probably in ordinary use got a limited asbestos exposure. If, however, you used the material extensively or if you have had previous asbestos exposure on the job, it might be useful to get a chest X-ray so that your doctor can check for possible lung disease or early signs of asbestos overexposure. But, if you do this, try to make sure that you go to a board-certified occupational physician or chest specialist.

Zonolite, sold as Zonolite Attic Insulation, was also a loose-fill insulation that was sold up to 1984 to pour between attic rafters, under floorboards and behind walls. Exposure to the asbestos there is of more concern. Probably the best course of action is to get samples of any loose fill in the house, take them to a lab and get an asbestos evaluation. If there is asbestos in there (even if it is only about 1 percent or so), you should try to seal up any holes or cracks through which the asbestos fibers can get into the living area of the house.

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