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Libby, Montana

Asbestos Town — Libby, Montana

After unregulated mining caused an asbestos emergency this small town. 

Libby, Montana has always been a logging and mining town, and its biggest employment boom occurred in 1919 when a vermiculite quarry was discovered a few miles outside the city limits, a mineral crucial to home insulation, fireproofing and other lucrative uses.

This profitable find captured the attention of W.R. Grace and Company, who purchased the mine in 1963. Business boomed, and the company was soon the exporter of 80% of the world’s vermiculite. There was only one catch for W.R. Grace: The mine was contaminated with the dust of the highly toxic and lethal mineral asbestos.

W.R. Grace knew well of these dangers, and even discussed its risks in private memos. But to sustain its profit, they didn’t let any of the miners or the town’s residents know. Instead, they discarded their asbestos-filled waste on the playgrounds, the baseball fields, and the roads of the town.

It took over 2,000 severe illnesses and 10% of the population dying of cancer and lung scarring for the company to be shut down in 1990. W.R. Grace’s executives were charged over $250,000,000 to clean up the 1,890 contaminated residences. They were subject to a whopping 270,000 lawsuits, 120,000 of which they are yet to pay off. The company was even indicted on ten counts for covering up evidence and causing over 400 deaths. As is all too common in similar corporate prosecutions, the charges were dropped in 2009. 

Fortunately for the people of Libby, the EPA has now replaced W.R. Grace as the number one employer in town, and has lowered the asbestos concentration in the air by 10,000%. Sadly, risks still remain: the town’s children are instructed to search for signs of asbestos whenever in public or at home - a quite terrifying concept for any parent.

Since the investigation, however, something quite unique has happened in Libby. Since the EPA has deemed Libby the first “public health emergency” in US history, any resident in Libby (and the neighboring town of Troy) diagnosed with ARD (Asbestos Related Disease) was deemed immediately eligible for full single-payer Medicare coverage provided by the US government.

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