It’s seven years late, but Libby, Mont., is finally getting substantial help for its sick and dying residents. Triggered by the federal government’s unprecedented declaration of a public health emergency in June, money from a $6 million health care grant will start flowing to the town this month for screenings and treatment.
The city thought that declaration would come in 2002, but the Environmental Protection Agency settled on a traditional Superfund designation. That surprising decision dealt a huge blow to a town with limited health care options.
The contamination of Libby stems from the operation of a nearby vermiculite mine, which closed in 1990. For decades, workers were exposed to the tremolite-asbestos- laced powder, which they would transport home on their clothes. More than 200 people have died of slow-developing lung diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Residents have a 40 to 60 times greater chance of suffering from an asbestos-related illness.
The health care grant is part of a larger $125 million EPA effort to clean up the town over the next five years. It’s likely that the spending won’t stop there. W.R. Grace and Co., which ran the plant, has agreed to reimburse the EPA $250 million for the cleanup of Libby and nearby Troy. It has also spent millions on health care. But the prospect of wringing more money from the company, which has filed for bankruptcy protection, was dealt a blow when a jury acquitted three former executives on charges of knowingly exposing residents to the dangers of vermiculite.
The EPA is implicated because it produced several reports in the 1980s on vermiculite hazards but failed to act on them, according to an inspector general’s report.
The feds are also paying for a $5 million, five-year study of the long-term effects of asbestos exposure in and around Libby. The dust is suspected of aggravating conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune system maladies. Medical researchers also want to figure out the extent of lung scarring from vermiculite and the possible effects on children.
Closer to home, EPA technicians descended on an old Spokane vermiculite processing plant in June and October and found low levels of cancer-causing fibers. They’re trying to determine if disrupted soil would pose any health risks.
While this flurry of activity is cold comfort to the afflicted, it represents long overdue action. The fight is over. Now there’s some hope of healing.