LIBBY — The houses and yards and businesses are cleaned up. The so-called stigma of Superfund designation is fast fading. The Cabinet Mountains and the crystalline waters of the Kootenai River beckon visitors and even new residents. And if not for the slow-motion horror of the plague on this place, Libby, self-titled City of Eagles, would be soaring.
Instead, this beautiful town, doused every day for more than six decades with tons of asbestos-laden dust from a nearby vermiculite mine, still suffers the unthinkable — a steady stream of the sick and the dying.
Thanks to the latency period of asbestos-related disease, that won’t change any time soon.
The mine closed in 1990, and EPA’s cleanup has been in process since the agency quickly responded to the disclosure of the problem in news stories in late 1999. So exposure to the deadly mineral should now be far less than it was for decades. But because it can take 40 years or more after exposure for symptoms of the disease to develop, it means that another generation or two will be affected by the disease here.
In fact, people who live in Libby but have absolutely no connection to the mine are still being diagnosed regularly with asbestos-related disease. And some are dying of it.
Yet even as the struggle continues in Lincoln County, Montana, which has the nation's highest asbestos mortality rate, the Environmental Protection Agency has loosened its regulation of new uses of the deadly mineral nationwide.
Asbestos-related disease is really several diseases: mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs, chest wall or abdominal cavity; lung cancer; and asbestosis, a condition which causes the lungs — scarred by millions of tiny fibers that stick into lung tissue like fishhooks — to lose their elasticity and thus their ability to take in and expel air.
Nobody knows precisely how many people have died from asbestos in Libby to date; for years, the hospital was controlled by W.R. Grace, the company that owned the mine, and “asbestos” never appeared on a death certificate in Libby. At least 400 deaths have been documented, but health officials suspect the number is higher. And more than 2,400 people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease after being screened at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) clinic in Libby.
Mike Cirian, burly, bearded, reserved but affable, is EPA’s project manager in Libby.
His office is cluttered with the detritus and details of his 13 years in the role. Community awards, exotic animal mounts testifying to the avid hunter’s trip to Africa several years ago, and piles of the unending paperwork of government give it a lived-in look.
The native Nebraskan is now a Libby guy through and through. His kids have gone through school here. He cheers for the Libby Loggers at high school sports contests, flips burgers at charity events, hunts and fishes, and lives like the local guy he is. He loves the place, and that has clearly helped him earn the trust of Libby natives.
Asked about the status of the cleanup, Cirian, wearing Wranglers and a western shirt, leans back in his chair and responds in characteristic low-key, measured tones, but he can’t suppress a grin.
“It’s monumental,” he said. “We’ve come a long way. There’s so much emotion tied to this.”
Of the seven operative units that make up the Libby Superfund complex, the two – Units 4 and 7 – that encompassed residential and business cleanups in Libby and nearby Troy have taken by far the bulk of Cirian’s time and effort. The scale of the work is staggering.
Some 8,100 properties were checked for asbestos. Of those, 2,600 required cleanup. Some cleanups involved excavating gardens and yards. Some involved cleaning asbestos insulation from attics and walls. By late September, only a handful of properties remained to be examined, and just a couple of cleanups were still in process.
Visiting one of those cleanups — a yard in a trailer park just south of town — was revealing. The work of cleanup itself is potentially deadly, of course. Everyone who was working directly on the site wore full hazmat suits including masks and respirators. Progress was slow but steady. Each step required elaborate care. Preparing to move a backhoe from its perch on a contaminated portion of land onto an already-clean and restored patch was a painstaking process involving lifting up first one end of the backhoe, then the other, clearing the tracks and the bucket of mud with a high-pressure hose, and finally edging the big machine onto clean ground so it could turn and attack the dirt it had just been sitting on. The yard was excavated to a level of 6 inches and would be filled with clean dirt and re-sodded.
Finishing the business and residential cleanup is a huge accomplishment. But for Libby, it will be bittersweet. About 100 people are now employed in the cleanup. At least 80 of those jobs are likely to go away in the next few months.
At the cleanup site, a supervisor who identified herself only as “Tina,” rocking reflecting sunglasses, a gray coiffure, and a no-nonsense attitude, shook her head worriedly when asked about the coming conclusion to the cleanup.
“We really need that mine,” she said, referring to the Montanore Mine, a proposed copper and silver mine in the Cabinet Mountains that has been stalled in the regulatory process for years.
In 2016, Donald Trump carried Lincoln County, Montana, by more than 50 points, 72.5 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 22 percent. But some of the president’s supporters here were startled to discover that, in his opinion, the fuss over asbestos is overblown.
Trump many years ago expressed the opinion that the entire flap over asbestos was created by the mob, which he said owns asbestos-disposal companies. More recently he has said that it is “100 percent safe when properly applied.”
Those views became relevant this summer when the EPA loosened restrictions on new uses of asbestos.
Under the Obama administration and a revised Toxic Substances Control Act passed by Congress in 2015, asbestos was well on the way to being banned in this country, as it is in some 65 other countries around the world. It had been identified as one of the first 10 chemicals the EPA would evaluate for possible further regulation.
But in June, the EPA issued a “Significant New Use Restriction,” indicating that new industrial uses of the mineral were possible only if approved by the agency. While this was touted as a measure of control, it was in fact a loosening of controls, since under the Obama administration, there was no question of any additional uses being approved.
Asked how he felt about his agency’s action, Cirian sidestepped. “My focus is on making Libby a better place to live,” he said. “The people at headquarters do the policy work.”
Others said locals have rationalized the change by saying that it won’t affect Libby. But some in the town who have asbestos-related disease don’t feel that way.
“Why would they do that?” said Jeff Robertson, 60, a retired truck driver and equipment operator. “So there can be more sick people like me?”
Linda Reinstein is president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. She was horrified at the EPA’s action this year.
“While we gather at grave sites to bury our loved ones, Trump’s EPA moves farther away from a ban,” said Reinstein Friday. “In 2016, nearly 40,000 Americans died from preventable diseases, yet asbestos remains legal and lethal in the United States of America.”
Cleanup of Libby's rail corridor, which was heavily contaminated because the asbestos-contaminated ore was loaded in bulk into freight cars and would spill onto the tracks, is essentially finished, too, Cirian says. (Rail workers died from the asbestos, and so did workers at vermiculite insulation “expansion plants” in each of dozens of cities across the country where the rail cars were taken and unloaded.)
But everything isn’t done with the cleanup — not by a long shot. Christina Progess, a project manager who works for Cirian, has the biggest remaining job: cleaning up the mine site itself and surrounding forest land.
Just figuring out how to attack that particular cleanup is taking considerable time. “There’s no template for this one,” Cirian said. “We’re breaking new ground.
“How do you clean a forest of asbestos?”
Progess is doing her homework, consulting with the U.S. Forest Service on wildfire behavior and protocols and with agency scientists on other technical details. Soon, a cleanup plan will be in place.
“Just log it all” might be a popular solution in logging-friendly Libby, but it’s not a practical one. When the now-shuttered lumber mill was going flat-out in Libby, many workers were sickened by asbestos — among them several of those who worked on the “de-barking” process, which naturally put sawdust into the air — and if the tree was contaminated, that dust would include asbestos.
A big question in town is whether there is enough money in reserve to allow for future cleanups. “If somebody finds contamination in their house or on their property later, they need to be able to clean it up,” says Cirian. But he believes the money left in trust from a couple of settlements with W.R. Grace is enough.
Others aren’t so sure.
“How do they know what will surface in the years to come?” says longtime Libby activist Gayla Benefield. “One big cleanup could wipe out what they have in reserve.”
One complicating factor is the fact that there are 230 properties where owners have not allowed the EPA on the property to check for contamination.
The reasons vary. Some people are against the government intruding onto their private property for philosophical reasons. Others’ reasons might be more specific. One said he was growing “special roses” in his attic, Cirian says with the hint of a smile.
But when those properties change hands down the road, it’s likely the new owners will want them checked, and that could mean further cleanup expense, Cirian admitted.
“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” he concluded. “A lot of people are tired of us and just want us gone. But I think most people trust me, and that’s a good thing.”
He is not immune to the grief that visits the town all too often.
“I’ve been to my share of funerals,” Cirian said.
So has Gayla Benefield.
Gayla, now 75, was instrumental in getting the story of Libby known to the outside world. She helped Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Schneider with his groundbreaking stories that revealed the scope of the Libby disaster in 1999.
She lost her parents to the disease. Three years ago, she lost her husband Dave to lung cancer. And she has been diagnosed herself. So have four of her five children, ranging from ages 53 down to 47. “The youngest is probably the most severe,” she said.
She’s lost so many friends and family members that she says, “I’m almost numb to losing people now.”
Gayla is on oxygen pretty much all the time, but she doesn’t let that stop her from doing things. She has a portable oxygen setup provided by the CARD Clinic that keeps her mobile.
She’s grateful, too, for the Medicare pilot project that enables her to stay in her home — a beautiful log house on the Kootenai River — with just her four dogs and a cat for company. She’s able to get her snow shoveled and help with other chores that protect her ability to live independently.
She says that while some people still harbor resentment toward her for exposing the town’s health emergency, “I get more thank-yous than boos these days.”
But she still worries for the town where she has spent her entire life.
“I’m seeing a lot of people with autoimmune diseases, lupus, MS, sarcoidosis,” she says. And sighs.
“I’m done fighting. But people need to remember: This didn’t just happen to us.
“It was done to us.”
Monday: At the clinic the town depends on, two men suffering from the disease tell their stories.
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