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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Pacific NW

Vermiculite mining in Libby left trouble in the air

James Hagengruber The Spokesman-Review

Early on, it was the miners who were getting sick from the asbestos-laden ore they dug near the small Montana town of Libby. Most are dead now, but more people are being diagnosed with asbestos-related ailments. Four generations of the town’s residents are now ill. And the deadly circle just keeps on growing.

Early on, it was the miners who were getting sick from the asbestos-laden ore they dug near the small Montana town of Libby. Most are dead now, but more people are being diagnosed with asbestos-related ailments. Four generations of the town’s residents are now ill. And the deadly circle just keeps on growing.

• • •

Sally Fuchs wasn’t exactly surprised when her dad died of lung cancer. He spent two years as a welder in the vermiculite mine, and every other man on his crew also ended up losing his ability to breathe from inhaling thick asbestos dust at the mine.

Fuchs, 45, never guessed she would eventually face the same fate. Two years ago, doctors spotted telltale thickening of a lung wall. After the diagnosis she sat in her car for a half hour, paralyzed by shock and dwelling on the betrayal of her happy childhood in this small, northwest Montana town.

She thought back to her earliest years, of living in the small cabin just two miles from the mine. So much asbestos dust spewed from the open pit that nearby forests would look snowy in midsummer.

Fuchs later lived in town near the railroad tracks, where train after train would rumble past her house, creating swirling wakes of deadly dust. She remembered playing in piles of the light, fluffy dirt that came out of the mine. “Just a big pile of fun stuff,” she recalled.

Fuchs thought back to the packets of asbestos-laden ore handed out by the mine’s owner, W.R. Grace of Columbia, Md., in her high school science classes.

“I couldn’t have lived in a worse spot,” Fuchs said at the home where she was raised and where she lives today with her 17-year-old son.

Tens of thousands of truckloads of contaminated dirt, carpeting, furniture, insulation and lumber have been removed from Libby in recent years as part of a massive federal cleanup. But the devastation and pain caused by the dust show no sign of abating.

Each month about 20 more people from the area are diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, ranging from thickening of lung walls to cancer to autoimmune diseases, according to Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist and noted asbestos health expert who lives in Deer Park. Whitehouse spends two weeks a month working in Libby at the Center for Asbestos Related Diseases, a not-for-profit clinic.

Many of the asbestos miners are dead, Whitehouse said. Most of the cases now are people who, like Fuchs, were exposed simply because they lived in Libby. About 1,800 current and former residents of the area have become sick, Whitehouse said. A 2001 federal study estimated between 18 percent and 30 percent of 7,200 residents were suffering a range of health problems.

“Who knows when the crest of the wave will be?” he said. “It keeps getting worse. It just gets worse. … It’s not going to get any better for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Some patients at the clinic are in their 30s. One woman never even lived in the area. Her exposure came from the two weeks she spent each summer visiting her grandparents in town. “She has really bad asbestosis,” Whitehouse said.

‘In everything we did’

There’s growing evidence that the disease may be caused by only a small exposure to the highly toxic amphibole asbestos fibers mined near Libby from the 1920s to 1990, Whitehouse said.

Most people diagnosed with asbestos problems can expect to lose about a decade of life, he said. Others will die sooner from different forms of cancer caused by asbestos. Still others, like Lisa Moles, blame asbestos for causing diseases of the immune system.

Moles, 44, grew up in Libby. She helped her father haul truckloads of asbestos to the family’s vegetable garden. She played in piles of contaminated dirt. She breathed dust stirred up by trains. Moles and her friends would even burn flakes from the mine, causing them to burst like golden pieces of popcorn and sending scores of asbestos fibers into the air.

“Asbestos was in everything we did,” said Moles, who now lives in Spokane.

Moles has been unable to work since 1998. She has lupus and a variety of other ailments. Last year she visited the emergency room more than 30 times because of breathing problems. It’s not easy for doctors to directly link all her conditions to asbestos, but Moles said her family history seems to make the connection obvious: Both parents died from lung problems, her three brothers have asbestosis, and other relatives have died from mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer.

“The people of Libby have been cheated out of life,” Moles said.

Once inhaled, it stays

There’s no way to remove the tiny mineral slivers once they are inhaled, and no way to reverse the damage they cause. Whitehouse believes some form of therapy may be developed eventually to block the body’s inflammation response triggered when the sharp fibers become lodged in the lungs. But that could be years or decades away.

For now, Whitehouse wants to see the threat neutralized. He believes millions of Americans outside of Libby could be at risk because their homes contain vermiculite insulation that originated at the mine near Libby. W.R. Grace, which once marketed the product as “the miracle mineral,” contends the insulation is no threat so long as it’s not disturbed.

Whitehouse has another opinion: “I sure as hell wouldn’t live in it and I wouldn’t let my family live in it.” He also faults the federal government for not warning those who live in homes with the insulation.

Roy and Elvina Orsborn believe their myriad lung problems came from asbestos-contaminated insulation. The couple moved into their home outside of Libby almost 50 years ago. The insulation was 6 inches deep in the attic. Elvina would scrub the wood floors every other day to clean up the dust that filtered down from between boards in the ceiling. When the couple added on to make room for their growing family, Roy used a chain saw to cut a hole in the ceiling to remove the insulation. The pellets ended up in their garden – vermiculite works wonders in the region’s clay soil.

Elvina Orsborn, 69, is on oxygen 24 hours a day and can barely walk 10 feet without needing a rest. “I’m going downhill,” she said. One of the Orsborns’ children also is sick.

There were no warnings then, even though reports and court documents show W.R. Grace was aware of the dangers posed by its vermiculite from Libby.

Safe level never determined

A report issued last month by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the federal government could do a better job informing Americans of the true danger posed by vermiculite. Brochures published by the EPA on vermiculite attic insulation “are inconsistent about safety concerns,” according to the report.

The report also criticizes the federal agency for never having determined a safe level of human exposure to Libby’s amphibole asbestos. That means the EPA “cannot be sure that the ongoing Libby cleanup is sufficient to prevent humans from contracting asbestos-related diseases.”

The EPA has spent at least $150 million cleaning up Libby since problems in the town were widely publicized eight years ago by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The cleanup has involved removing 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the town, according to data supplied by the agency. So far, 794 homes have been cleaned with at least 600 to go. This summer, the agency will begin working on contaminated properties in Troy, a small community 18 miles west of Libby.

The inspector general’s report questions the wisdom of cleaning so many homes without first figuring out how clean they ought to be. “EPA cannot be sure that the Libby cleanup sufficiently reduces the risk that humans may become ill,” the report stated.

Paul Peronard, manager of the EPA’s work in Libby, acknowledged the need for a baseline toxicity study. But he said his main priority has been using the available funding to remove immediate threats in the community, rather than “spend it killing lab rats.”

By Peronard’s estimate, 90 percent of the contaminated materials has been removed from the community. A toxicity study is being put together now, but probably won’t be ready for another two years, he said.

The agency is also trying to understand all the ways residents continue to be exposed to asbestos. This could include everything from fibers being released when contaminated firewood is burned to dust stirred up when lawns are mowed. Local firefighters are being trained to limit their exposure when houses burn. Three contaminated homes have burned in recent months, including one that lofted vermiculite insulation high into the sky.

Peronard said the idea is to make Libby a safe place to live long into the future. But some residents wonder if a town that was so infused with the dust can ever be made clean. Perhaps the wisest idea, some say, would be to buy out the town and move it.

Peronard doesn’t like that suggestion, but he said it’s an option that must be considered.

“That’s the policy of last resort,” he said. “Are we going to fence off the Libby Valley and make it another Chernobyl?”

Although there’s debate over how the cleanup money should be spent, there’s little argument – at least among the hundreds who are sick – over who should pay the bill. W.R. Grace, the company that operated the mine from 1963 to 1990, and seven of its former executives will go on trial in September for federal conspiracy, endangerment and obstruction of justice charges. The company is responsible for the tragedy in Libby, according to federal prosecutors. The company has said it denies the charges and that it cannot comment on the merits of the indictment.

W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy in 2001 to protect its assets from the growing number of asbestos illness claims. A bankruptcy hearing is expected later this year.

Cookies with vermiculite

Dan Freebury, a 59-year-old Libby resident who suffers from severe lung problems, said he can’t wait for the trial to begin.

“That company owes me a life,” he said.

Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite covered the baseball fields of Freebury’s childhood. It was under the high school running track. One of his friends even tried smoking it. Another made bread and cookies with vermiculite.

“It actually tasted good,” Freebury said. He began to laugh at the memory, but then cut himself off. Laughter is tough on his lungs, which have been harpooned by scores of microscopic needles. “We were always playing with it.”

Freebury moved to Oregon when he was 16. He eventually worked at a college there, then became a building contractor in hopes of saving more money to retire a few years early. His plan was to buy a motor home, follow stock car racing and spend loads of time with his five children.

Since 1998, he has been unable to work. Now he’s permanently tethered to an oxygen bottle. He barely has the energy to feed himself, much less attend his 15-year-old daughter’s softball games or help fix his 16-year-old son’s truck. “You can’t even be a dad to them,” Freebury said.

When he returned to Libby in 2000, Freebury had hopes of giving his kids the same small-town upbringing he enjoyed. It might have been a contaminated childhood, but Libby was a great place to grow up, he said.

Now he wonders if the decision to return was smart. The home he bought had vermiculite in the walls and yard. The soil was later removed by the EPA, but not before his kids spent hours and hours playing on the lawn.

Freebury’s parents died of lung problems. He will, too. He hopes to be the last of his line to die from the dust.

“Grace owes all of us,” he said.

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