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Asbestos Contamination of a Vermiculite Mine in Libby, Montana

Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Was Shipped Throughout the Nation, Endangering Workers and the Public

WASHINGTON, DC -- December 30, 2005 -- Two hundred thirty-six manufacturing plants throughout the nation received more than 5.8 million tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana. Vermiculite is an ore that can be "popped" or expanded into a lightweight substance used in fertilizers, insulation, and potting soil. When the contaminated vermiculite is heated during processing, it releases asbestos fibers. As a result, workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos at vermiculite plants.

The government has been reviewing the extent of the damage to communities, workers and their families in the areas surrounding the vermiculite processing plants. Below is a brief summary of the vermiculite and asbestos situation in some of the states. It is based on studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) as well as reports by the consumer organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG). For a complete list of states that have vermiculite manufacturing sites with high priority clean-up status, see Phase I Sites, ATSDR, National Asbestos Exposure Review. For a list of all the states that received vermiculite from Libby, see the EWG web site.


About 79,048 tons of asbestos-laden vermiculite were shipped to Arkansas from Libby between 1948 and 1990. A plant in North Little Rock received the most vermiculite for a total of 64,637 tons. Arkansas plants that received smaller amounts were located in Nashville, Hope, Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviewed 88-year-old Arland "Bill" Blanton, a former manager at the North Little Rock plant for 20 years who now has asbestosis. "No one told us the vermiculite had asbestos. Everyone I know of who took my place at the plant is dead," said Blanton (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 27, 2005). He also said that most of his former Grace workers died from asbestos-related diseases.


Over one million tons of vermiculite from the Libby mine were shipped to 23 processing plants in California. Three of these plants, located in Newark and Santa Ana, are on the ATSDR and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) short list of sites that need priority study and clean-up.

Workers at the three plants were exposed to asbestos when:

  • Unloading vermiculite from rail cars
  • Moving vermiculite to furnaces
  • Processing vermiculite
  • Handling waste rock (unexpanded vermiculite) after processing.

People who lived near the plant may have been exposed to asbestos when moving waste rock from the plant to their homes. The waste rock was then used in gardens, in play areas, and for fill or paving material. Also, sometimes the Newark plant released dust and asbestos fibers into the air in the period from 1966 through 1993.


The Western Minerals Products Company plant in Denver, Colorado processed about 100,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from sometime prior to 1967 through 1990. The ATSDR concluded that former plant workers were exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos (ATSDR, Health Consultation, September 9, 2003). Also, people who lived with former workers may have been exposed to hazardous asbestos levels from fibers carried home on the workers' hair and clothing.

The soil at the current site is contaminated with asbestos. Future exposures remain possible if construction or other activities disturb the soil beneath an asphalt parking lot that covers some of the asbestos-containing soil.

The EPA says that not enough data is available to determine whether people are being exposed to Libby asbestos from waste that may have been used in the community. In other communities, vermiculite waste has been used for a variety of purposes, such as fill, driveway surfacing, and soil amendments.


Three sites in New Orleans together received a total of over 120,000 tons of asbestos vermiculite. One of the plants is on the ATSDR and EPA list of the most contaminated vermiculite clean-up and study sites. This plant operated from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Former workers at all three plants were at high risk for asbestos exposure.

The recent damage from Hurricane Katrina greatly complicates asbestos problems in New Orleans. Debris from homes and commercial businesses may contain asbestos as well as other toxic substances. The EPA has been doing outdoor air sampling for asbestos during the demolition and debris disposal process. See Hurricane Response 2005 for details about sampling sites.


From 1966 through 1988, a plant in Dearborn, Michigan processed 206,055 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby. Waste from vermiculite manufacturing was hauled off in boxes and some debris was dumped in local landfills. Piles of asbestos-containing waste rock were stored outside on company grounds. Children often played on these piles. Waste rock was also given to the public to use in driveways and gardens. During its busiest periods, the plant ran 24 hours a day, sometimes releasing asbestos from its furnace stacks. Asbestos dust may also have traveled from the plant on trucks or on the clothes of employees.

At least five other facilities in Michigan received contaminated vermiculite, but not to the extent received by the Dearborn plant. The EPA has classified the plant as a priority site for clean-up purposes. Workers there were exposed to high levels of asbestos, and their household members were also likely exposed to the substance. Although the plant is no longer processing vermiculite, asbestos remains within the surrounding soil.

Vermiculite is not the only ore that may be contaminated with asbestos. Taconite is a hard, low-grade iron ore that often contains asbestos. Workers in the iron and taconite mines at Michigan's upper peninsula may be at risk for asbestos exposure.

The Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit opened the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers last year in response to the vermiculite and taconite problems in Michigan. Its mission is to monitor and help individuals in Michigan and elsewhere who have been exposed to asbestos-containing vermiculite and the asbestos in other materials. The Center will work on the detection and treatment of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma.


The Western Mineral Products plant operated in downtown Omaha from the 1940s until 1989. From about 1967 until it was shut down, the plant received more than 165,000 tons of Libby vermiculite. Former workers described the vermiculite manufacturing conditions as very dusty. No special dust control measures were taken until the late 1970s. In 1976, the facility was cited for providing no respirators to its employees.

Undoubtedly, the Omaha workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos. Family members were also at risk because of the lax conditions at the plant that allowed workers to track home asbestos dust on their shoes and clothing. See the ATSDR Fact Sheet about the Omaha plant.

North Dakota

Three plants in Stanton, Center, and Minot, North Dakota together received a total of 25,993 tons of vermiculite from Libby. One of these facilities, the Robinson Insulation Company plant in Minot, is on the EPA/ATSDR list of high priority vermiculite study sites. It operated from 1945 through 1983, processing about 16,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite.

The Minot Parks Department purchased the property from Robinson Insulation in 1993. Robinson Insulation did not clean up any asbestos contamination in the plant prior to the sale, and there is no record of asbestos sampling. Instead, the Parks Department reportedly hired local lifeguards to sweep up the buildings rather than employing individuals licensed and trained in asbestos removal (Health Consultation, September 2003). The ATSDR concluded that former vermiculite workers and some Parks Department workers were exposed to illegal levels of asbestos.


Eight sites in Portland received over 164,040 tons of vermiculite. Two of these sites, the Vermiculite-Northwest Inc. plant and the Supreme Perlite Company plant, are on the EPA/ATSDR list of high priority clean-up sties.

The Supreme Perlite plant, which is still in operation, received vermiculite ore from both South African and Libby mines. A good proportion of the ore was likely contaminated with asbestos. The Vermiculite-Northwest Inc. plant, which was shut down in the early 1990s, received almost all its ore from the asbestos-contaminated Libby mine.


The EWG estimates that vermiculite shipments totaling 63,611 tons made their way to 33 Washington state processing plants. The bulk of the shipments--over 37,000 tons worth--was delivered to 18 facilities in Portland.

The Vermiculite-Northwest facility in Spokane received over 20,000 tons of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. Shut down in 1974, the Spokane plant nevertheless remains on the ATSDR/EPA priority list of contaminated sites. Soil sampling showed residual asbestos in on-site soils, and some samples taken off-site revealed trace levels of asbestos.

The Washington State Department of Health urges former employees of the Spokane plant and their families to contact their doctors for testing and monitoring for asbestos diseases. "We're concerned about the elevated health risk for the former employees of this plant and those closest to them," said Washington State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes (Press Release, April 13, 2004). "That's why we encourage them to consult with a physician familiar with asbestos-related lung disease."


About 594 shipments of vermiculite went from Libby, MT to three locations in Wisconsin, according to the EWG report. This totaled 55,672 tons of asbestos-contaminated ore.

The study estimates that from 1979 through 2001, at least 719 people in Wisconsin died due to asbestos exposure. These figures may be understated because they are only based on death certificates for asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma, two diseases firmly connected to asbestos. However, the statistics do not include lung cancer deaths, even though national estimates of lung cancer mortality from asbestos range from 5,000 to 10,000 per year during that time. The researchers also noted that the mesothelioma fatalities are underestimated because the government did not start tracking mesothelioma as a cause of death until 1999.

The Latency Period for Asbestos Diseases

We may not know the full impact of exposing people to the asbestos in vermiculite at this time. This is because asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma may take decades to develop. Diagnosing mesothelioma can be particularly tricky, as asbestos victims may not develop the disease until 40 years or more after exposure. Also, some asbestos disease symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing may be signs of other diseases as well.

See Diagnosis and Treatment of Lung Cancer, Pleural Mesothelioma Diagnosis, and Asbestosis Symptoms for more details. If you would like to know more about asbestos and your legal rights, please feel free to contact us at Brayton Purcell. We have over 20 years experience representing victims of asbestos diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

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