Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis
Chris Weis, a 47-year-old toxicologist, was not, at first, alarmed. Based in Denver, Weis specializes in emergency response for the EPA's Region 8 office, which covers the northern Rockies. Just before Thanksgiving 1999, while attending a meeting in Helena, Montana, Weis was paged by his managers. The agency had seen an inflammatory report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerning a small town that Weis had never heard of where close to 200 deaths and another 400 cases of fatal illness were being attributed to exposure to mine contaminants.

"Look," he tells me, in the EPA's field office in Libby, "I've got a doctorate in toxicology and a doctorate in medical physiology. My first reaction to the reports was, This doesn't happen."

Weis nonetheless went to Libby to investigate, visiting the former mine and a number of sites where ore was processed and handled. He contacted a pulmonologist in Spokane, Washington, 200 miles to the west, who had treated hundreds of Libby residents for asbestos-related lung disease, which occurred in town at 60 times the national average rate. He learned of at least 19 local cases of an invariably fatal cancer called mesothelioma, whose only known cause is exposure to asbestos, and which is so rare that, as Weis says, "one case in a population of a million is considered an epidemic." He spent some time talking to residents. "Libby is a small town," he points out, "so if you talk to 40 or 50 people and every one of them has a neighbor or family member with an asbestos-related disease – to say the least, that's unusual." Weis returned to Denver persuaded that Libby had the distinction of hosting "the most severe human exposure to a hazardous material this country has ever seen."

Within two days, the EPA descended on Libby in full force, bringing in a team of scientists, physicians, geologists, and toxic-cleanup experts. None of them were prepared for the dimensions of the disaster they would discover. They learned that W.R Grace had "pumped so much asbestos fiber into the airshed here, it hung in the center of town in concentrations that were probably 20 times higher than the present occupational-exposure limit," Weis says. They learned that when W.R. Grace left town in 1990, the company had done a sloppy job cleaning up its former properties, which remained highly contaminated. And there was more. "We found disturbing evidence that the material had been readily accessible to the general public in Libby. Ore was often free for the taking. Kids played in it; it was in sandboxes and on ball fields. People would load up their pickup trucks and take it home to use in their gardens as a soil amendment and on their driveways as a surfacing material. When the high school track needed resurfacing in the 1970s, W.R. Grace brought down truckloads of raw ore – almost, in some cases, pure asbestos – and covered the track with it. Kids ran on mine tailings until 1983."

Finally, the EPA called in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which invited the residents of Libby and the surrounding valley, past and present, to undergo screening for signs of asbestos-related disease. As Weis recalls, "We anticipated that, given the severity of exposures in Libby, we might see possibly as much as 10 or 12 percent of the population come back with scarring on their lungs." Chest X-rays were taken of 6,144 people. Preliminary results released this March, representing 1,078 of those examined, revealed that 30 percent showed symptoms of lung disease. "We just weren't prepared for that," Weis says. "What's unprecedented is that so many of these sick people had no known source of exposure to asbestos. They only lived in Libby."

Weis was also shocked to discover that his predecessors at the EPA and other federal agencies had been well informed of the dangers in Libby. "The pieces of this situation were put together in the seventies," he says. "Very detailed studies were done. The results were unequivocal." While it's true that until 1970, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, regulatory oversight of work places was severely limited, rarely had a year passed since the mid-fifties in which some government agency did not visit Libby and come back with troubling findings. In 1968, for instance, the U.S. Public Health Service warned W.R. Grace that "the dust concentrations are from 10 to 100 times in excess of the safe limit."

Nonetheless, a series of EPA memos in the early eighties addressing the health risks at the mine were allowed to languish. At that time, President Reagan, in his first term, was intent on reducing government spending in order to cut taxes. (In a report issued this spring, the office of the EPA's inspector general acknowledge that the "EPA did not place emphasis on dealing with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite due to funding constraints and competing priorities.") It's worth noting that in 1982, Reagan convened a closed-door gathering of advisers to come up with suggestions for where to trim the budget. The group, called the Grace Commission, was chaired by an old friend of the president's, J. Peter Grace, the president and CEO of W.R. Grace.

The EPA is still cleaning up Libby, having spent $12 million on its efforts in 2000, with another $16 million budgeted for 2001. Sixty to 70 percent of Libby's homes are thought to contain vermiculite insulation. Most yards have vermiculite in the soil. At dusk, the streets downtown still glisten with a sheen of powdery ore. Nights at my motel, I often pass hazardous-waste workers in the hallway. They have been brought to Libby by the EPA. By day, they can be seen entering sealed houses around town, beating pillows, vacuuming curtains, and dusting mantels in an effort to measure how much asbestos fiber has worked its way into the fiber of daily life in Libby.

Naturally, the ore that was taken from W.R. Grace's mine did not stay in Libby for long. It was transported to more than 250 processing plants around the country. The EPA has barely started examining these sites. In Minneapolis, though, the agency tracked down 57 former employees of a factory that had received its share of Libby's vermiculite. Twenty-four of those workers either had died or were dying of asbestos-related disease.

"You can still go to your local Kmart and buy gardening supplies that contain Libby vermiculite," says Weis, who is in charge of gathering and evaluating scientific data on Libby's contamination. "Speaking purely as a toxicologist, I've never seen as hideous a poison as this material."

"Around the last part of 1960, a boss at the experimental lab come down and told us, 'I want you to get in the pickup and go up on the hill and get a load of asbestos.' That was the first time I ever heard the word. I'd seen a lot of it up there, but I didn't know what it was. We got shovels and picks and dug it out of the hill. We brought it down to town, and spread it out as thin as possible in our work area, and put electric heaters on it to dry out. We got on our hands and knees to pick out rocks from it, because we'd been told they wanted 100 percent asbestos. We worked every day on it, all day long, for a couple of weeks. When the stuff got dry, the wind would blow through the door and scatter it all over the building. We didn't want to lose any of it, so we sealed up all the doors with rags. I had no idea what they wanted it for. But like I say, we were just paid to do a job. There was not a peep about it being dangerous." –Les Skramstad