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Asbestos: A Peculiar Rock

Asbestos: A Peculiar Rock

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Greeks found a peculiar rock that seemed to be more of a cloth than a mineral. They found that if they integrated it in their pottery, it would give it extra strength and ability to withstand hot temperatures. Both the Greeks and the Romans began to mine this amazing mineral and found more and more uses for it. They used it in cooking utensils and building materials. They created table clothes and napkins which could be cleaned by being thrown it in the fire, only to come out whiter than before. It seemed that this odd mineral was nothing short of magical; however, it didn’t take long for them to notice that the laborers who mined this rock were getting sick with horrible coughs, and dying quickly from being around this rock. Although the use of this new material decreased sharply as a result, they still gave it a name that gave homage to its seemingly indestructible nature: they called the mineral asbestos.

History Repeats Itself

During the 20th century, asbestos was used to make hundreds of various products, from insulation to clothing. Unlike the ancient days, however, when adverse effects from its use began to present themselves, the use of asbestos actually continued to rise. As a result, thousands of workers around the globe became sick and many lost their lives due to exposure to the deadly fibers in the air. One community that suffered the most was a small town in Northern Montana.

Anyone passing through Libby, Montana would fall in love with the town. Sitting in the beautiful Montana countryside, it seems that this quaint little town would be the perfect place to grow up. Sadly, Libby has a tragic history for those who have lived there. W.R. Grace opened a vermiculite mine which became the city’s main resource in the ’60s. Vermiculite is rock mined for use as an insulator, but often contains asbestos. Although Grace, as well as his higher-ups, knew that the workers are being exposed to the hazardous substance, employees were kept in the dark about the dangers they faced every day. It wasn’t until 1990 that the mine was shut down and the company was charged. By then, it was too late. The company had exposed its workers, and the entire town, to asbestos. By 1999, this beautiful town became one of the EPA’s most critical superfund sites in the country.

Hope For The Future

Now, nearly twenty years later, the EPA and Montana are making plans to transfer control of the town, and its projects, from the EPA back to Montana. Since the beginning of the project, the EPA has spent nearly $600 million cleaning up Libby. The state will take over in monitoring the town and making sure that the asbestos, which is found in many of the homes and underneath the soil, does not come into contact with the city’s residents. It’s unclear, and perhaps impossible to know, how much asbestos will remain when the EPA leaves; however, discussions are revolving on future operations and cleanups that will occur whenever there is a chance for more exposure.

No matter what decisions are made, they will not be made lightly. Asbestos has been a plague on this town, claiming close to 400 lives and destroying the health of 3,000 more. Now, with the end of the project in sight, Libby can breathe easy, knowing that the air is clean, and hope, through time, the town can return to its former beauty.

For more on the disaster in Libby, MT, click here.

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