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A Tale of Two Cities: Libby, Montana & Wittenoom, Australia: Two Cities Left To Die

Updated on April 28, 2014
Libby Mine
Libby Mine
Baseball Field in Libby near vermiculite loading
Baseball Field in Libby near vermiculite loading

Libby, Montana: Dying For a Living

In 1900, the world discovered and then cultivated a need for the mineral known as asbestos. People had been aware of the fire retardant capabilities of the product for centuries. The Romans, according to Pliny had sent slaves into the mines to gather the material for us. Pliny had noted those who worked in the mines and wore the material lived short lives. He referred to the material as the “magic mineral” and the funeral dress of kings.

He was correct on both aspects. Asbestos is the only known mineral that can be woven into a material. It has also, over the centuries, resulted in the funerals. Not of kings but of thousands of workers around the world. Although the dangers of working with asbestos – mainly asbestosis, a deadly disease of the lungs, were known as early as the late 1920s and confirmation followed by research done by credible, non-company scientists, people continued to work unprotected until, in some cases, the 1990s. Two towns who suffered greatly were Libby, Montana and Wittenoom, Western Australia. Although a world apart, they have one major common characteristic. What befell the workers there was preventable. It would never have happened except for a company’s greed.

Libby, Montana

The mining of vermiculite in the area around Libby, Montana had been going on since the early 1900s. E.N. Alley purchased the Rainy Creek Claim in 1919. He then created the Zonolite Company. At that time, vermiculite was sold for insulation and as a soil additive. What went unnoticed was the airborne dust from the mines and, particularly from the Libby mill used. Zonolite operated until 1963. It was then purchased by W.R. Grace.

By that time, the ill-effects caused by exposure to asbestos were no longer a secret, although companies continued to deny them and had been doing so using tame scientists since 1935. As the company expanded, in the end producing up to around 80% of the vermiculite supply for the world, the health hazard continued to rise. Anyone working in the mill was exposed to the floating particles of asbestos. It was the air they breathed and fell on the clothes they wore. One estimate puts the percentage of asbestos particles in the air as high as 40%.


The mine and mill at Libby employed 200. Yet, asbestos knows no borders. In one instance involving a worker for another asbestos company – the United Asbestos & Rubber Co (UNARCO), the wife of a worker developed asbestosis from washing her husband’s clothing. This is the truth of asbestos-related diseases. An individual did not have to work directly with the material to contract the disease or diseases. All someone had to do was breathe in the asbestos fibres. In Libby, this meant the hundreds of residents going about their own lives in Libby.

In fact, the company had so kindly added to the problems. They distributed any leftover vermiculite around the town. It was placed in garden beds, was added to people’s backyards where they held barbecues and family gatherings. The asbestos-laced vermiculite leftovers also found their ways onto play grounds and baseball fields. Roads were covered with it. There was no way you could have escaped asbestos as it floated through the air of the mine, mill and town.


W. R. Grace was not ignorant about the dangers of working with and exposure to asbestos. They were well aware that the workers handling vermiculite were exposing themselves to asbestos. Yet, it was business as usual at the mine. No workers were warned of the inherent risks of their employment. In fact, nothing was done until 1999 when the health problems had been aired publicly. The mine closed in 1990 when the government stepped in and found unhealthy levels of asbestos in the air. The extent of the problem was never made public until the media broke the story in 1999.

A series of articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer written by Andrew Schneider appeared. They were aptly titled "Uncivil Action: A Town Left to Die." Attention was now focused where it should have been in 1990, on the citizens of Libby and the impact of the company’s actions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to investigate and came back with some very disturbing findings. Comparison tests between the rate of death from asbestosis in the United States, Montana and in Libby revealed the truth. It was between 40 to 80 times higher. In addition, the mortality rate from lung cancer was 1.2 to 1.3 times greater.


Statistics cannot sum up the number of residents affected by the calculated careless actions of the W. R. Grace Company. Hundreds have died and many more will continue to do so. There are residents of Libby who worked in the mines and lived in their community until the mine closed in 1990. They will continue to suffer from asbestosis and other related diseases because of the greed of one corporation.

As for the company itself – criminal proceedings against W.R. Grace & Co. started in 2001. To date, it is described as the one of the largest asbestos case of this type. The company and seven major executives were charged with failing to disclose the truth about the effects of asbestos to their workers and ignoring the impact it would have on them, their families and the community of Libby. In 2009, the company was acquitted. While no mention was ever made of the company’s rationale for doing so, - they denied former knowledge, it is probably the same one provided by the chief executives of UNARCO quoted inPaul Brodeur(Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial).

Charles H. Roemer said, "I'll never forget, I turned to Mr. Brown, one of the Browns made this crack (that Unarco managers were a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis), and I said, 'Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?' He said, 'Yes. We save a lot of money that way.””


W.R. Grace was never found guilty of willfully withholding their knowledge of the effects of asbestosis. They settled with those in the town of Libby who sought compensation for the disease. They also went into Chapter 11 (filing in 2001 and completing it in 2008) emerging stronger but, this time, staying away from asbestos. Libby underwent cleanup. It has survived, even if many of those who worked and lived there have not. In this, it fared better than Wittenoom in Western Australia.


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