In Libby, optimism emerges as asbestos cloud lifts

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Libby has been in the asbestos spotlight for a long, long time.

It’s been 20 years since the extent of toxic asbestos exposure from the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine thrust the rural community rather unwillingly onto the national stage as news of the asbestos poisoning came to light. The Daily Inter Lake broke the story in November 1999, followed days later by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After that, the national news media swooped in a lot at first, then occasionally, and after a few years the national stories about Libby asbestos were few and far between.

Perhaps it’s blowing our own horn, but to its credit, the Inter Lake has followed Libby’s asbestos saga consistently since 1999, writing hundreds of stories about the people sickened by asbestos exposure, the Superfund declaration, the Environmental Protection Agency’s exhaustive cleanup efforts, the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) screening program that’s still diagnosing people with asbestos disease, the myriad lawsuits and settlements for victims.

And we’re still writing about Libby. A three-day overview of the asbestos aftermath kicks off today and runs through Tuesday.

Twenty years later, the snapshot of life in Libby is dramatically different in many ways, even though it’s still the picturesque, welcoming community it always has been. Yes, there is the “asbestos fatigue” of dealing with not only the health impacts from asbestos exposure but also the challenges of being labeled a “sick and dying” town. But there’s a new energy emerging from Libby, Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck pointed out, a vibrancy as local leaders develop a plan on how to move forward as a community. They’ve hired professional help in shaping Libby’s future legacy while embracing its past, for better or for worse.

Here’s where the Libby area is at today. The EPA is preparing to hand off a significant portion of the project — the decontamination of residences in Libby and Troy — to local and state government. About $600 million has been spent on cleanup, and 2,600 properties have been decontaminated. More than 1 million cubic yards of contaminated soil has been removed, along with 30,000 cubic yards of contaminated building materials. The federal agency released a draft of its institutional controls plan in October of this year which, once approved, will act as a guideline for how to contain what asbestos remains and how future community concerns may be handled.

To be sure, there are lingering questions about the cleanup of the mine site itself and other Superfund-designated sites in the Libby area.

At the CARD clinic, patients are still being diagnosed with asbestos disease. There are 7,000 patients currently on the clinic’s list, with about half of those being diagnosed. That’s up from 5,540 patients in 2013.

The story of Libby, however, ultimately revolves around its citizens. Under dire circumstances they’ve shown perseverance, fortitude, grace and goodness. They were dealt a bad hand by a corporate giant that failed to put proper controls in place. There’s a new sense of optimism in Libby these days, though, that comes with having been through the worst and seeing a bright future ahead.

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