Montana Town Still Operating Under Asbestos Cloud


The airborne motes that killed and sickened hundreds in this little town over the years didn't scare off Bobby Whitefield when he decided to retire here.

To him, Libby is a paradise, and Whitefield had examined it with the hard-eyed insight of an environmental biologist.

"I had done quite a bit of research, about two years," said Whitefield, who retired in 1993 from the Texas version of the Environmental Protection Agency. "Even knowing the facts about the asbestos, we kept being drawn to Libby."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999 reported a link between asbestos contamination from the defunct W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine here to nearly 200 deaths and dozens more illnesses. The vermiculite ore, used to make a wide variety of products including household insulation, contained toxic levels of tremolite asbestos.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been in town ever since, locating "hot spots" of asbestos contamination. Among them was a high school track where W.R. Grace had spread vermiculite as a running surface years earlier. Grace faces more than 100 lawsuits filed by the families of the sick.

Despite all that, Whitefield and his wife moved from Dripping Springs, Texas, just outside Austin, to 25 acres just south of this town of 2,900 last May and began enjoying their view of the Cabinet Mountains and the company of friendly residents.

"They're kind of like Texans used to be," Whitefield jokes.

But Whitefield is no fool, either. He bought land upwind of the long-defunct mine that powdered the area with lung-scarring asbestos from 1963 to 1990. And the couple's property is far from any of the nine other sites where the EPA has been conducting emergency cleanup.

The Whitefields are a dream personified for the Libby Chamber of Commerce and local business people, who foresee their northwestern Montana town doomed to be shunned by tourists and investors.

They worry that even the well-publicized effort to clean up the asbestos will only add to the stigma.

The latest dilemma: Should the town let the EPA declare it a Superfund site and add it to the EPA's National Priorities List? It may seem like a simple decision--unless you live in Libby.

A listing would bring benefits, most notably the assurance of enough money to finish the cleanup. Atty. Gen. Mike McGrath says it's the only viable option. A researcher for the Environmental Quality Council said the same.

The EPA will give much weight to Gov. Judy Martz's recommendation, and she will give much weight to the opinions of Libby residents--who are profoundly and emotionally divided. There's no dispute that the contamination must be cleaned up. The question is how, and by whom.

Martz says she has not decided, but also says she would rather Grace did the cleanup because private enterprise is always more efficient than government. But Grace filed for bankruptcy in April, and the attorney general says it is highly unlikely Montana can force the company to pay for the cleanup.

Underlying everything is the worry that Libby has been branded a death trap and that designation as a Superfund site will only magnify that.

"Ever since this came out publicly two years ago, the town has been real divided about it," said state Rep. Eileen Carney (D-Libby). "There are some people, I think, who think it's overblown and others who think it's been ignored far too long."

Chamber of Commerce members and other business people say they are afraid to voice reservations openly about the Superfund designation. When the governor came for a public forum early this month, many held their comments until they could meet separately with her.

"We all feel we are targeted by the [asbestosis] victims, which is not to say we are not victims too," said resident Teddye Beebe, a member of the state Board of Realty Regulation. "Many of us in the business community are afflicted by asbestosis. But if you say anything about being worried about your business, people take it as an affront to their illness."

Beebe said one woman's house was pelted with eggs even though she had not spoken publicly, and when Beebe's husband wrote a letter to the editor about the hostile atmosphere in town, they received hostile telephone calls. Beebe said she is not sure how she feels about the Superfund designation.

The EPA would work on all the sites at once, convulsing the entire town for several years, she said. It would be less traumatic, she thinks, if the town could clean up one contaminated site at a time, still spreading the work over some years but making it less disruptive.

State Sen. Bill Crismore (D-Libby) says a big part of the problem is lack of specific answers to some specific questions. For instance, will the EPA clean the houses in town that have vermiculite insulation? The insulation was made from the Libby vermiculite. And would a Superfund listing require any cleanup that would not be required otherwise?

"Somehow we can't get those answers," Crismore said. "We cannot find out, and I don't think anybody in town knows, if they'll clean those houses. . . . We don't know whose liability it may be if they find [asbestos] on somebody's place. We've never been able to get that answered."

Charlotte Woods, who moved to Libby from California in 1989, was one of those who told the governor that business people were hesitant to speak out about the Superfund designation.

"I'm just a resident of Libby who somehow feels the negativity is absolutely killing us," she said later. "It keeps going on and on and on."

The Superfund designation "is a really difficult question," she said. "My opinion is, I'm not sure it's a necessary thing."

Carney, the hometown legislator, also believes the asbestos danger is past, but favors the Superfund designation.

"There's no asbestos in the air, and that's what's dangerous," she said. She agrees that the town's problem has been exaggerated.

"People think it's far worse than it is," Carney said. "Nobody is being contaminated now unless they're directly employed (in cleanup work), and there isn't that much. The EPA is doing a good job, moving pretty fast."

But Carney, a Libby resident for 26 years, also recalled when the problem first became known in 1999: "I was surprised like anybody else. I knew people were dying, but I didn't realize how many."

Libby's newest enthusiast, biologist Whitefield, also thinks the danger is past.

"One thing we looked at very closely was safety, and we think this is a safe town," he said.

"There's an obvious problem. There's obviously been damage, and people that have been damaged. The mine is shut down, and as long as the asbestos is in the ground there's a minimal health concern."

Still, Whitefield comes down in favor of the Superfund designation.

"Getting yourself on the priority list gets you money to get the cleanup done as expeditiously as possible, and I think that's really important.

"Obviously there is some negative impact by getting on the priority list, but I'm looking 10-20 years down the road. Libby will get over this. They have a tremendous future, I think, and they should be looking to the future."

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