Environmental and Public Health Disaster at Libby, Montana
In November 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a team of investigators to the small town of Libby, Montana, in response to media reports of a high incidence of asbestos-related disease among its residents. The response team found that yards, homes, school playgrounds, and industrial sites in Libby were contaminated with asbestos as a result of W.R. Grace & Co.’s nearby vermiculite mining and processing operations.
Vermiculite is a unique mineral that expands like popcorn when it is heated. Expanded vermiculite had many commercial uses, such as inclusion in concrete aggregate, loose-fill “Zonolite” insulation, horticultural applications such as soil conditioning, and as a bulk carrier for agricultural chemicals. Unfortunately, however, the vermiculite ore body near Libby is contaminated with asbestos. Grace mined and processed about 80% of the world’s supply of vermiculite at its mine in Libby until the mine was closed in 1990.
The community-wide exposure to asbestos in Libby is one of the largest environmental and public health disasters the nation has faced. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry determined:
that persons living in Libby have a standardized mortality ratio for asbestos-related death of 40 to 60 times higher than a normal population.
Anecdotal reports from local physicians indicate that over one hundred Libby residents have died from asbestos-related causes. In addition, hundreds of Libby residents suffer from decreased lung function due to pleural fibrosis or interstitial disease. These impacts have made Libby one of EPA’s most notorious sites and a high priority Superfund cleanup.
In 2004, EES obtained a trial judgment of $54 million against Grace for EPA’s initial cleanup activities. Payment of this amount was delayed indefinitely due to Grace’s intervening bankruptcy filing.
In 2008, EES negotiated a $250 million settlement, which the Bankruptcy Court approved and Grace subsequently paid, to reimburse the agency for its past expenditures and to fund future cleanup costs. The settlement represents the largest cash recovery in Superfund history.