We have previously written about one of the biggest asbestos-related disasters in American history: the town of Libby, Montana. For decades, a vermiculite mine operated just outside the town. What the public didn't know, however, was that the vermiculite was contaminated with a highly toxic and friable form of asbestos.
Thanks to some activists who were observant enough to notice that too many people in Libby seemed to be suffering chronic lung diseases and early deaths, the asbestos problem was eventually discovered. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Libby and the surrounding areas became an EPA Superfund site, and cleanup efforts are ongoing.
The cleanup of Libby and a smaller neighboring city are beginning to wind down, but the hazards are far from gone. The Environmental Protection Agency has just begun cleanup efforts in a huge swath of land near the vermiculite mine, which is located north of Libby. But the impacted area may be much larger than originally estimated. The cleanup area designated as "Operable Unit 3" originally covered 35,000 acres. Recently, after conducting environmental toxicity tests, the EPA expanded the site to 47,000 acres.
OU3 cleanup may be further complicated by the fact that it includes forested areas. In the event of a wildfire near the old mine, dangerous toxins could be released into the air.
The Libby Superfund site has already resulted in tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. More importantly, hundreds of people have died and thousands have been sickened by exposure to asbestos produced in that one mine. If we ever needed a reminder of just how horrible this substance is, we need look no further than Libby, Montana.