Montana Vermiculite Mines
Gold miners in Libby, Montana discovered vermiculite in 1881. Vermiculite is a mineral commonly used in insulation, brake linings, roofing, and soil conditioners. In the 1920s, the Zonolite Company began mining a version of vermiculite known commercially as Zonolite.
Impure vermiculite contains asbestos, a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals used in insulation and fireproofing. Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral that has been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer that is attached to the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. When airborne fibers are inhaled or ingested, the risk of asbestos-related diseases increases The vermiculite produced in Montana contained a large amount of the carcinogen.
When W.R. Grace & Company took over Zonolite mine operations in 1963, they knew about the contamination and its dangers. However, they did not notify employees. The mine is the largest and oldest vermiculite mine in the United States. While in operation, 80% of the world’s supply of vermiculite was produced there. In 1990, the mine closed due to asbestos contamination.
Numerous mining sites are located around Lincoln County, Montana, in the Rainy Creek Mining District. Around a dozen vermiculite mining sites are located throughout the state of Montana.
Between 1948 and 1993, over five million tons of asbestos were shipped out of Libby, Montana to hundreds of processing facilities in nearly every state in the country. While in operation, 80 percent of the world’s source of vermiculite was extracted from the Libby, Montana mining sites.
During operation, fibrous dust from the vermiculite exposed workers in the facilities and those living in the area. The hazardous substance found in the vermiculite was called tremolite-actinolite series asbestos, often called Libby amphibole asbestos (LA).
Later, those who were exposed near the mining sites in Montana started to develop diseases associated with exposure. It was concluded in a study that low-dose community exposure to Libby amphibole asbestos is associated with increased related diseases. Nearly every structure in Libby was contaminated with the toxic material.
Dust from the mine spread all over Libby and the neighboring town of Troy. The materials, or tailings, leftover from the mines were used as fill for driveways, gardens, and playgrounds in Libby and neighboring Montana towns.
In a town with a population of less than 3,000, over 400 people have died of an asbestos-related illness. For years, the small Montana town’s disease and death rate from related illnesses were much higher than the national average.
The World Trade Center
On September 11, 2001, much of the United States tuned in to witness a tragedy when the World Trade Center was destroyed in a series of terrorist attacks. For some of those who were present in New York City that day – the tragedy continues.
The World Trade Center and two other nearby buildings were built with over a million pounds of asbestos sprayed into the buildings. The vermiculite used in the World Trade Center came from Libby, Montana. The dust that swelled the city after both towers crashed down contained nearly 900,000 pounds of asbestos, mercury, lead, and other toxic materials. The dangerous dust was inhaled in various doses by nearly everyone in Lower Manhattan, causing a dangerous risk of illnesses, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
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Concerns from citizens, local governments, and media regarding exposure to asbestos prompted investigations and removal programs.
In October of 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the Libby, Montana mining sites on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL). The Superfund program is designed to fund hazardous and contaminated cleanup sites around the country.
Since then, the EPA has jurisdiction over contamination in Montana schools. Schools in Montana still have to follow national and state exposure and abatement statutes. Construction site standards in Montana are enforced by the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA).
In 2009, the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby for federal health care assistance for victims of asbestos-related diseases.
In December 2014, a scientific review by the EPA completed finalized a risk assessment of toxicity values in the area. By this time, the EPA had effectively made an effort to manage indoor and outdoor cleanups.
Over 2,600 properties have completed cleanup within Libby and Troy as of November 2018. Over one million cubic yards of contaminated soil and other waste has been removed from the area, including in schools and parks.
Contaminated soils are disposed of at the former vermiculite mine, while construction waste is placed in a specially designed landfill cell. The EPA has made significant improvements to reduce asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana. However, the number of asbestos-related illnesses is expected to remain a threat. If you experienced hazardous exposure while working in or living near a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, you are likely eligible for legal compensation. Reach out through our free case evaluation to learn more.