Last week, the state of Montana reached a $25 million settlement with over 1000 victims of asbestos exposure who had lived in Libby, Montana. Libby is the site of a vermiculite mine contaminated with asbestos that before its 1990 closure had polluted the town and exposed miners as well as other residents to asbestos for decades.
What Is Vermiculite?
Vermiculite is a shiny mineral most people identify as an additive to potting soils. It is also used in several other retail products and industrial applications like insulation, fillers, brake linings, fiberglass, concrete and more.
In and of itself, vermiculite is not harmful, unless it has been contaminated with asbestos like the Libby vermiculite. Tragically, during its operation the Libby vermiculite mine provided at least 85 percent of U.S. vermiculite sales, according to the Billings Gazette.
We have devoted several posts to the Libby asbestos story. For example, earlier this month we wrote about a study of pleural thickening in patients exposed to Libby asbestos as children.
The scope of harm was great enough for the small town as well as neighboring Troy to be declared in 2002 a Superfund site, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since cleaned up significantly at a cost of almost $600 million.
The Lawsuit Settlement
The suits that were just settled with the state of Montana focused on a history of state secrecy concerning the asbestos danger. According to the Flathead Beacon, the state had asserted that it had no duty to warn miners of the asbestos risk, a position with which the Montana Supreme Court disagreed.
The Billings Gazette reports that the state allegedly kept confidential “hundreds of pages” of mine safety reports shared by the state only with the mining company, but not with miners. Those reports detailed “enormous exposure” of workers to asbestos-contaminated dust, which could be brought home on work clothing and endanger family members also.
Apparently, even company-paid doctors did not know of the inspection reports. In addition, while state inspectors did recommend a variety of safety measures that would have lessened miner exposure, reportedly few of the safety practices were implemented.
In addition to exposure at the mine itself, dust was carried from the mine to the surrounding communities, and insulation using the contaminated vermiculite was used in Libby buildings and for other local uses like for gravel, even on playgrounds and ball fields.