The History of Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana

Sam Taylor (1)

Legally Reviewed By: Sam E. Taylor
Managing Attorney | Mesothelioma & Asbestos in Houston

Sam Taylor

Legally Reviewed By: Sam E. Taylor
Managing Attorney | Mesothelioma & Asbestos in Houston

The natural beauty of Libby, Montana, has been forever overshadowed by the legacy of asbestos on Vermiculite Mountain, home of the largest vermiculite mine in the world from the 1920s until 1990. While vermiculite is not known as a harmful substance, the Libby mine’s vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. As a result, people exposed to Libby vermiculite have developed mesothelioma and other deadly illnesses.

Vermiculite miners experienced the highest levels of asbestos exposure, but thousands more Libby residents have contracted asbestos-related illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency has referred to the Libby vermiculite contamination as the worst human-made environmental disaster in United States history. Our Montana mesothelioma lawyers at the Lanier Law Firm are helping victims of Libby asbestos exposure get justice.

Libby, Montana, Asbestos Contamination

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral. Like asbestos, vermiculite’s heat resistance makes it a popular component in insulation. The material is also used as a soil conditioner. 

Conditions similar to those that form asbestos also form vermiculite. Both materials can develop near each other in the earth and cross-contamination can occur during mining.

The Libby mine was the world’s largest producer of vermiculite. The mine was opened in the 1920s by the Zonolite Company, and W.R. Grace and Co. purchased the mining operations in 1963. 

Unfortunately, Libby’s vermiculite deposit was contaminated with tremolite-actinolite asbestos at a level as high as 26 percent. This form of asbestos is part of the amphibole family, or in the case of the Libby vermiculite mine, Libby amphibole asbestos. 

While all types of asbestos can cause deadly illnesses, amphibole asbestos is more toxic than the more common chrysotile asbestos because its needle-like structure allows it to become more deeply embedded in lung tissue.

Amid growing public concerns about the impact of Libby asbestos, the Environmental Protection Agency investigated the site in 2000. Upon testing, the agency found asbestos contamination nearly everywhere in Libby, including in the following materials:

  • Vermiculite insulation
  • Bulk materials
  • Indoor dust
  • Soil
  • Water
  • Animal and fish tissue
  • Indoor and outdoor ambient air

Libby, Montana, Asbestos Exposure

The vermiculite mine near Libby was one of the largest employers in Lincoln County. Most Libby-area workers made a living through the mine or nearby businesses serving the mine. Conditions at the mine were dusty. Workers didn’t wear masks because they would clog too quickly. The dust was so thick that workers could not see their hands or brooms. Unbeknownst to these workers, this dust was tainted with asbestos.

Workers would leave the mines covered in the contaminated dust and carry it home. Family members were exposed when they came into contact with the workers on their nightly return home or when the dust fibers circulated inside the homes. Workers’ spouses faced high exposure levels shaking out and laundering the workers’ clothing. This is known as secondary asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Exposure During Vermiculite Processing

After vermiculite is mined, it undergoes a heating process known as exfoliation, during which the substance is heated to a high temperature until it pops like popcorn. The exfoliation process creates a lightweight, fire-resistant material. 

When the contaminated vermiculite mined at Libby underwent exfoliation, asbestos fibers were released into the air. In addition, other businesses used Libby’s exfoliated vermiculite with the damaged asbestos fibers to manufacture products, some of which were installed in homes, businesses, and public locations.

Asbestos Exposure During Vermiculite Transport

BNSF Railway shipped vermiculite from the River Loading Facility, which it had constructed for the sole benefit of Zonolite. Vermiculite dust was thick at this facility, and testing revealed that the dust contained approximately 40 percent asbestos. The dust covered the outside of the train cars and created dust clouds during the 4.5-mile trip to the railway station in downtown Libby. 

The dust spilled out of the cars along the way, contaminating the ground and the trees. Lumber mill workers were exposed to asbestos that had lodged into the bark of trees in the area. 

Each time a BNSF train loaded with asbestos-tainted vermiculite stopped at the station, it deposited significant quantities of dust at the site, leaving piles to blow by the wind into surrounding neighborhoods. This asbestos remained for more than a decade after the mine ceased operations in 1990.

Community Asbestos Exposure in Libby

Libby was a mining town, and local businesses relied more heavily on Libby vermiculite for everyday applications than communities without such immediate access to the material. It was used to pave boat ramps, the ice rink, running tracks, baseball fields, and schoolyards. Homeowners were allowed to pick up free truckloads of vermiculite for personal use, and children played in piles of it.

Libby Asbestos Exposure Beyond Libby, Montana

While Libby residents have experienced the most profound asbestos exposure from its vermiculite mine, its effects have been felt worldwide. Hundreds of vermiculite processing plants received Libby vermiculite regularly while the mine was in operation, and W.R. Grace shipped it worldwide. 

Libby vermiculite products have been installed in an estimated 35 million homes in the United States alone. Workers involved in the processing, installation, or removal of Libby vermiculite products have a risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses.

Libby Montana Asbestos Deaths

Exposure to asbestos in the Libby mine has caused thousands of Libby residents to develop the following asbestos-related illnesses:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Rectal cancer

A study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology found that from 1979 to 1998, the malignant respiratory death rate in Libby residents was 20-40 times higher than expected. Meanwhile, non-malignant respiratory deaths from illnesses such as asbestosis were at least 40 times higher than expected. The latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is ten years or more after the initial exposure. Thus, the study’s results likely cover workers exposed to Libby asbestos from the 1950s to the 1970s.

As of 2022, more than 400 people have died of asbestos-related illnesses in connection with Libby asbestos, and more than 2,400 have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses.

Libby Montana Asbestos Cleanup

The EPA began removing asbestos from the Libby mining site in 2000. In 2002, it designated the Libby mine as a Superfund site and placed it on the National Priorities List. The agency found such high concentrations of asbestos in the area that it declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby in 2009 to enable residents to receive federal assistance for asbestos illnesses. This was the first time in history that the EPA had declared a federal emergency.

To date, the EPA has completed the following steps in the cleanup effort in Libby, Montana:

  • Cleaned the former Export Plant site and the Highway 37 embankment.
  • Investigated more than 7,800 residential, commercial, and industrial sites.
  • Cleaned up more than 2,600 properties in Libby and nearby Troy.
  • Removed asbestos from the former Stimson Lumber Company property.
  • Cleaned up 30 miles of affected national and state highways.
  • Removed more than a million cubic yards of contaminated soil.
  • Removed more than 30,000 cubic yards of contaminated building materials.

Is the Asbestos Cleanup in Libby Completed?

Cleaning up the extensive asbestos that has contaminated the Libby area is a massive effort that will not be completed for many years. 

The EPA has completed the cleanup of all schools, parks, residential areas, and business locations in Libby and Troy. On December 8, 2014, the EPA announced that it had effectively managed the cancer risk from asbestos exposure in Libby. It stated that airborne asbestos concentrations were approximately 100,000 times lower than when the mine and processing facilities were active.

However, cleanup efforts are ongoing, and Libby remains a Superfund site. The EPA is working in cooperation with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the United States Forest Service, and other agencies to facilitate the continued effort. 

According to our attorney Sam Taylor, who has visited Libby:  

You can still go out there along the railway and see visible vermiculite…It looks like little gold or shiny particles on the ground along the railway…I actually saw some of it myself.

Who Is Responsible for Libby Asbestos Exposure?

BNSF Railways and W.R. Grace knowingly exposed Libby area residents to asbestos and failed to take measures to protect workers or the public.

By the time W.R. Grace took ownership of the mine, most asbestos companies knew how harmful asbestos was, and W.R. Grace was no exception. Evidence has mounted showing company executives knew the mine was contaminated with asbestos all along. Consequently, W.R. Grace has paid millions of dollars to resolve lawsuits. 

Moreover, the American railroad industry has known about the hazards of asbestos since at least the 1930s, and BNSF Railways knew the W.R. Grace mine was contaminated with asbestos. Thus, both companies are responsible for the thousands of casualties that have stemmed from Libby asbestos.

Our Law Firm Is Pursuing Claims for Libby Asbestos Exposure Victims

Exposure to asbestos in the Libby mine has caused thousands of Libby residents to develop the following asbestos-related illnesses:

Our firm has won over $20 billion in mesothelioma settlements and verdicts against large companies that exposed workers and the public to asbestos. We are now taking on BNSF Railways in a consolidated case on behalf of two families whose loved ones died from mesothelioma. Both plaintiffs lived near the downtown railyard, where large piles of loose asbestos dust persisted until 2001.

BNSF railroad had more involvement with W.R. Grace’s operations than merely transporting its goods. It participated in vermiculite product development, oversaw operations at W.R. Grace’s shipping facilities, collected soil samples in search of new sites, and more. Its knowledge of the presence of asbestos has been well-documented since the 1920s.

We have also sued Robinson Insulation and Grogan Robinson because they manufactured and sold products and materials tainted with asbestos from the Libby vermiculite mine. The trial is scheduled to begin in April 2024, with Mark Lanier personally trying it.

Sam Taylor and Rachel Lanier are handling a second Libby asbestos lawsuit on behalf of a 62-year-old woman with mesothelioma who has undergone a lung transplant. The trial is scheduled for December 2024.

Claims Against W.R. Grace

W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 while facing 129,000 asbestos exposure claims. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2014. Bankruptcy shields companies from lawsuits, but companies with asbestos liabilities must establish asbestos trust funds to compensate asbestos-exposure victims, including those who come forward in the future. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness, you may be eligible to recover compensation from the W.R. Grace Asbestos PI Trust. One advantage of asbestos trust funds is that the claims are processed without going through the court system, resulting in a faster process for compensation. 

Our experienced mesothelioma lawyers can help you file your trust fund claim and identify all other sources of compensation. You may be eligible to file a mesothelioma lawsuit and a trust fund claim.

What Should I Do If I Was Exposed to Libby Asbestos?

Being exposed to asbestos doesn’t guarantee that you will develop an asbestos-related illness, but it does increase your risk. Tell your doctor about your asbestos exposure, and contact the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease, or CARD, in Libby. This nonprofit clinic provides free screenings to Libby residents. You can reach the CARD by calling (406) 293-9274.

According to the CARD, approximately 25 to 27 percent of Libby residents have asbestos-related diseases. If you’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness, you will need early treatment for the best possible outcome. Due to the severe, widespread asbestos exposure in Libby, Medicare provides special benefits for Libby residents who have contracted asbestos-related diseases. You can receive treatment at the CARD.

The Libby community has suffered needlessly for decades because W.R. Grace and BNSF Railway embraced corporate greed over public safety. If you’re suffering from mesothelioma or you’ve lost a family member to the disease, you deserve justice. 

Our compassionate and skilled attorneys at the Lanier Law Firm can help you file a mesothelioma claim so you can hold them accountable and recover significant financial compensation for you and your family. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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