Montana Town Suffers from Asbestos Contamination

Paul Peronard i i

Paul Peronard oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup in Libby, Mont., where crews are removing asbestos from homes and yards. Kathy Witkowsky hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Witkowsky
Paul Peronard

Paul Peronard oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup in Libby, Mont., where crews are removing asbestos from homes and yards.

Kathy Witkowsky

The town of Libby, Mont., was rocked seven years ago by news that hundreds of its residents had died or been sickened by exposure to asbestos. The asbestos was a byproduct of a mine operated by W.R. Grace and Company. The company and seven former executives have been charged with concealing the health risks associated with the mine. Their trials have been delayed, but cleanup continues.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The town of Libby, Montana was rocked seven years ago by news that hundreds of its residents had died or had been sickened by exposure to asbestos. The asbestos was a by-product of a mine operated by W.R. Grace and Company. The company and seven former executives have been charged with concealing the health risks associated with the mine. Their trial has been delayed, but the clean-up continues, as Kathy Witkowsky reports.

Unidentified Man: Well, welcome to Libby, Montana, the 2006 Ignite the Nites.

KATHY WITKOWSKY: If you like small towns and big mountains, Libby is your kind of place, especially during the annual Ignite the Nites weekend, when car enthusiasts show off their old vehicles on Mineral Avenue, the town's main street. It's easy to see why Linda Lloyd moved her family here more than 30 years ago.

Ms. LINDA LLOYD (Libby Resident): I like the small community. I like the clean air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WITKOWSKY: She's laughing at the irony.

Ms. LLOYD: We thought we were leaving the smog and everything and coming to a place that was healthy for our children. Didn't turn out to be that way.

WITKOWSKY: Unbeknownst to Lloyd and her neighbors, Libby's air was anything but clean. It was contaminated by asbestos, which was a by-product of the local vermiculite mine.

Ms. LLOYD: The whole community was exposed to it. The dust filled the air. It would be on the top of your cars. It would be on your clothes that you'd hang out on the lines. I mean, it wasn't just the people that worked there. It was everybody.

WERTHEIMER: The mine closed in 1990, but the asbestos remained behind, mixed in with vermiculite that was used to insulate homes, and in materials that were used in gardens and yards, even put on the junior high and high school tracks.

No one knows exactly how many people have been affected, but a health clinic here that specializes in asbestos-related diseases has 1400 patients and sees about 20 new patients each month.

Ms. KIMBERLY ROWSE (Center for Asbestos Related Disease): It's very heartbreaking here.

WITKOWSKY: Kimberly Rowse manages the clinic.

Ms. ROWSE: There are people of all ages. The mine site was here for many, many years. Children played in it, and so we are seeing these people returning as adults. Probably our youngest patient to date that's been diagnosed is 25. He's told me he can't even pick his kids up because he can't breathe.

WITKOWSKY: Officials from W.R. Grace refused repeated requests for interviews, citing the pending criminal trial. But Rowse says that many of the clinic's diagnoses are being disputed. One fact that is not in dispute: there is no cure for asbestos-related disease. Over time, the lungs lose their elasticity, effectively suffocating the victim. Libby asbestos can also cause a fatal form of lung cancer.

The EPA has been trying to prevent any more exposures. In the residential neighborhoods behind Mineral Avenue, half a dozen crews are removing the asbestos from homes and yards. The EPA's Paul Peronard is overseeing the project.

Mr. PAUL PERONARD (Environmental Protection Agency): And we've actually finished up in the attic, and they've just left everything in place. And we're running clearance samples right now to see what, if anything, is left behind.

WITKOWSKY: But that's where things get tricky. Little research exists on the type of asbestos found in Libby. Peronard worries that what may be considered safe today could wind up being a problem in years to come.

Mr. PERONARD: Even for the houses we complete the clean-up, when we give them a letters that says, hey, we finished the clean-up, we include a sentence -nobody likes seeing this sentence - we may have to come back because we might have to clean to a lower level or clean up additional material based on future research.

WITKOWSKY: But Peronard doesn't want to wait for that research before he cleans up places he knows pose a risk.

Mr. PERONARD: It's always this constant balance of, you know, how clean is clean? And that question comes up on every Superfund site there is. It happens to be a very, very complicated and - given the medical conditions up here -very important question in Libby.

WITKOWSKY: The EPA has already spent $150 million and still has another 600 homes to clean up, about three years worth of work. And even after those jobs are completed, Peronard expects people to come across buried asbestos-contaminated material from time to time.

Les Scramstead(ph) would have handled things differently. He's a former mine worker who's now suffering from asbestos-related disease, as is his son.

Mr. LES SCRAMSTEAD (Former Mine Worker): They should have come in our town and said, well, I don't believe we can ever clean all this stuff up and for your own safety I think we have to just buy you all out and move you someplace else (unintelligible) in Libby, somewhere else. And we probably could have done it for about what it's going to cost by the time they're done dinking around here in town.

WITKOWSKY: Questions about the risks associated with Libby asbestos have ramifications far beyond this small enclave. Libby vermiculite was processed at some 250 plants around the nation, and insulation made from it remains in perhaps millions of homes. So long after it's left Libby, the EPA may still be grappling with the town's toxic legacy.

For NPR News, I'm Kathy Witkowsky.

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