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Libby is a small town situated in the Kootenai Forest. It is considered the worst asbestos contamination site in the United States of America. The contamination was caused by W.R Grace, which was a mining company that operated a vermiculite mine in the town from 1963 to 1990 (Peacock, 2008, p. 23). There were asbestos fibers in the vermiculite ore that was extracted in Libby.
The asbestos fibers were released into the air, thereby contaminating several buildings and public areas in the town. According to OSHA, asbestos is a hazardous substance that causes diseases such as lung cancer, lethal tumor, and mesothelioma among others (Peacock, 2008, p. 31). By 2000, the contamination had caused the deaths of at least 200 residents of the town.
In addition, 375 people had been diagnosed with illnesses such as mesothelina. Overall, the contamination had caused at least 1,000 illnesses in the town. This paper will discuss the effects on the surrounding community from W.R Grace’s asbestos contamination, the response made by W.R Grace to mitigate the contamination, and the impact of the contamination on existing policy and enactment of new legislation.
Effects on the Surrounding Community
The vermiculite ore that was mined in Libby had asbestiform amphiboles, which consisted of toxic substances such as winchite, richterite, and tremolite. According to the USA’s geologists, at least 84% of these minerals were airborne (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585). “At least 26% of the vermiculite ore consisted of asbestos” (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585).
The process of extracting minerals from the vermiculite ore led to the emission of toxic dusts. This is because 40% of the dust was asbestos. The toxic dusts settled on roofs, cars, vegetation, and play fields, thereby exposing the public to the risk of getting asbestos related-illnesses.
The spread of asbestos in the town caused deadly illnesses and loss of hundreds of lives. The effect of the contamination was exacerbated by the fact that the mine had employed thousands of people in Libby and the nearby towns. The residents who worked at the mine were exposed to asbestos levels, which were as high as 182f/cc on a daily basis (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585).
The health effects of the contamination caught the public attention in 1999 when several residents of the town were diagnosed with asbestos related-illnesses. An investigation on the effect of the contamination by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2000 indicated that the deaths caused by malignant and non-malignant respiratory diseases had significantly increased in the town.
In particular, between 1979 and 1998, the number of deaths caused by malignant and non-malignant respiratory illnesses in Libby was 40% higher than in Montana and other parts of the United States of America (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585).
The number of deaths caused by asbestosis in Libby was 80% higher than in Montana and the USA. Similarly, lung cancer mortality in Libby was 1.4% higher than in other parts of the United States (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585). Occupational exposure was the main cause of the increase in asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in Libby. Diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma were mainly found among the residents who worked at the mine.
The contamination has since caused more than 200 deaths and at least 350 residents of the town are suffering from asbestos-related illnesses (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 579-585). Apart from the residents of Libby, the contamination also adversely affected thousands of tourists who visited the town.
Libby has beautiful mountains, which attracted tourists from different parts of the world. The tourists were also infected by the asbestos-related illnesses since they inhaled the contaminated air in the town. In addition, most of the customers who bought W.R Grace’s products were infected by asbestos-related illnesses.
Consequently, the effects of the contamination were felt in nearly all parts of the United States. Research indicates that the full impact of the contamination on the community is yet to be fully determined. This is because the symptoms associated with most of the asbestos-related illnesses can only be noticed after 20 to 40 years from the day of exposure to asbestos. In this regard, the government expects more infections and deaths to occur in Libby in the near future due to the contamination.
Response made by the Company to Mitigate the Contamination
Initially, W.R Grace refused to accept liability for the asbestos contamination in Libby. The cost of cleaning up the contamination was very high and the company was recording poor financial results at that time. Consequently, it was reluctant to take any corrective measures in order to rehabilitate the environment. Nonetheless, the EPA stepped in and began to clean up the contamination in 2000.
This involved removing vermiculite from homes and business premises in Libby, as well as, covering the mine site. Moreover, the extent of the contamination on natural resources such as vegetation had to be conducted in order to identify the best course of action.
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Since the cleaning process required a lot of financial resources, the contamination was considered for funding by the Superfund in 2000. Furthermore, W.R Grace was ordered by a District Court in Montana to pay $250 million as a compensation for the damage (Department of Justice, 2003). The EPA used the compensation to finance the process of cleaning up the contamination.
In 2009, the EPA classified the contamination as a public health emergency, thereby receiving additional $130 million from the government to clean up the town and provide medical assistance to the residents (Schneider & McCumber, 2011, p. 45). At least 1,460 premises were cleaned up in 2010 by removing 900,000 cubic yards that consisted of contaminated substances.
The residents have also been trained on how to identify asbestos because the contamination might remain even after the completion of the cleanup process. The EPA has also cleaned up the plant that was used to process vermiculate ore, as well as, the public areas that were likely to be contaminated by asbestos.
Apart from paying the cleaning costs, W.R Grace also paid $60 million to owners of properties in Libby (Department of Justice, 2003). This compensation was paid to customers who had used the company’s insulation products, which were contaminated with asbestos. W.R Grace also spent $2.75 million to establish a medical fund for the Libby community (Department of Justice, 2003).
This fund was used to finance the treatment of residents who were diagnosed with various asbestos-related illnesses. The fund was expected to reduce the health effects of the contamination by enabling everyone to access medical services in time.
The Impact on Existing Policy and Development of New Legislation
Even though the health effects of the contamination became apparent in 1999, environmentalist had begun to notice the pollution caused by W.R Grace as early as 1970. In order to protect the environment and the community, existing pollution abatement policies had to be modified and new ones had to be enacted to facilitate regulation of the activities of W.R Grace in Libby.
In 1973, the company was accused of causing air pollution through the smoke and dusts that it emitted due to its mining activities (Ross & Nolan, 2003, pp. 447-470). At that time, the policies that controlled air pollution did not include asbestos as a pollutant. This led to the adoption of the Clean Air Act, which included asbestos regulations.
The new regulations required the government to demolish unsafe processing plants that emitted asbestos into the air. Additionally, owners of unsafe plants were required to renovate their mills in order to prevent asbestos contamination. W.R Grace responded to these regulations by installing new air pollution control equipment at its processing plant.
In 1987, the company produced over 150,812 tones of vermiculate, thereby raising the chances of high asbestos contamination in the town. The amount of asbestos released into the air could not be controlled at this time because there were no emission standards. Consequently, the EPA obtained information about W.R Grace’s emissions and used it to advocate for the adoption of emission standards in Montana.
This led to the amendment of Section 112 of the Clean Air Act by including the national emission standards for asbestos (Ross & Nolan, 2003, pp. 447-470). In 1994, W.R Grace violated the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) regulations. Environmentalists believed that the dusts produced by the company did not just pollute the air, but also water bodies. Thus, Montana adopted water quality standards in order to protect its water resources.
Additionally, Montana adopted a comprehensive list of air pollutants in 1996 in order to minimize environmental degradation. Conducting human health risks assessments also became a requirement for acquiring emission permits. Thus, the cost of acquiring an emission permit was determined by the level of the health risks associated with the pollution.
The mining activities of W.R Grace led to the worst asbestos contamination in Libby Montana from 1963 to 1990 (Peacock, 2008, p. 21). The health effects of the contamination emerged from 1999, when several residents of the town were diagnosed with various asbestos-related diseases.
The contamination caused at least 200 deaths and 1,000 illnesses in the town. W.R Grace was ordered by a District Court in Montana to pay $250 million to cater for the cleanup of the contamination. The EPA used these funds to cleanup residential and business premises in the town in order to reduce the health effects of the contamination. W.R Grace also provided funds for treating the residents who were diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses.
The contamination led to the adoption of water and air emission standards in Montana. This paper discussed the effects on the surrounding community from W.R Grace’s asbestos contamination, the response made by W.R Grace to mitigate the contamination, and the impact of the contamination on existing environmental policies. Based on the findings of this paper, hazardous air pollutants should be controlled in order to protect the lives of citizens and the environment.
Department of Justice. 2003. W.R Grace Liable for Libby, Montana Cleanup Costs. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/
Peacock, A. (2008). Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation. New York: Johnson Books, Boulder, Co.
Ross, M., & Nolan, P. (2003). History of Asbestos Discovery, Use and Asbestos Related Disaeses in Context with the Occurrence of Asbestos within Ophiolite Complexes. New York: Geological Society of America .
Schneider, A., & McCumber, D. (2011). An Air that Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal . New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sullivan, A. (2007). Vermiculite, Respiratory Disease, and Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana: Update of a Cohort Mortality Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(4), 579-585.