Can America's Most Toxic Town Be Saved?
Activist resident Gayla Benefield visits the town cemetery
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein
Over the past decade, Libby has emerged as a living laboratory for the study of toxic exposure. I returned to visit Dr. Brad Black, medical director of Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease, or CARD. In 2001 he was the county's part-time public health officer, struggling to cope with the mysterious medical crisis that had been dumped at his doorstep. He had moved to Libby in 1977 to set up a pediatrics practice, and is now almost certainly one of the world's most experienced clinicians in a grim, specialized field. "You end up doing things you didn't expect," he said. "This thing has just kept on getting bigger." The clinic has 4,000 patients, half of whom have shown evidence of asbestos-related changes in their lungs. Black believes there could be 20,000 others who have gotten sick from Libby asbestos, or who will. (The disease can remain latent for up to 40 years.) Libby's rate of asbestosis is estimated to be 40 to 80 times higher than the population at large; its rate of mesothelioma is 100 times the norm. Asbestos-related disease, which, Black told me, slowly scars the lung, is frequently accompanied by chronic and severe pain. "I've seen couples in their early forties come in here crying because the pain makes it impossible for them to have sexual relations," Black said. "No one expected to have to deal with this."

The EPA team that arrived to deal with Libby's situation in late 1999 had the heroic sheen of scientist-cowboys, come to rescue the town from its plight. The EPA remains, but it has come to assume a workaday presence as it tries to get to the end of what can seem to be a bottomless problem. Mike Cirian, an engineer and the on-site manager for the EPA's Libby work, has been in town since 2005. "This isn't your typical cleanup," he said. "It's an entire community. People live in it." The boundaries of the cleanup encompass approximately 180 square miles. Close to one-third of Libby's properties were found to have vermiculite in their soil; air tests determined that gardening, mowing lawns, and using leaf-blowers were hazardous activities. According to Cirian, the EPA has decontaminated 1,600 residences, at a rate of 130 to 150 a year. It has removed 25,000 cubic yards of vermiculite insulation and 1.2 million tons of soil. The air in downtown Libby had 10,000 times as much asbestos in it when the EPA arrived as it does now. In 2008, the EPA negotiated a settlement of $250 million, its largest ever from a polluter, from W.R. Grace. Still, the agency has spent that and more in Libby – $420 million so far – and it no longer knows when its job will be done.

Cirian drove me around to show me some of the EPA's work. We passed an old Victorian house that had broad tubing running from its exterior to ventilation machinery on the lawn. We passed a row of three bungalows. "Did that one, did that one, did that one," Cirian said. At the edge of downtown, he steered his truck toward a large, muddy field, buzzing with heavy equipment, on the banks of the Kootenai River. After years of dispute, Libby and the EPA had agreed to reclaim this land for a 17-acre riverfront park to open this summer. It is the former site of the contaminated ball fields, where generations of Libby's children had played.