The global COVID-19 pandemic has hit all facets of our society hard, but some already long-suffering communities in our country are being especially impacted due to a decades-long health crisis. One such place is Libby, Montana, where a now shuttered vermiculite mine has poisoned the soil, air, and water of local residents who have received diagnoses for asbestos-related health conditions by the hundreds and thousands, which makes them especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.
Lincoln County, which is home to the town of Libby, ranks near the top of the nation’s mortality rate for asbestos-related mortality rates. Hundreds in the county have succumbed to asbestos-related diseases, which include asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer. In Libby, at least one in 10 residents suffers from an asbestos-related illness. While Lincoln County was mostly spared from the coronavirus, the virus’ fall surge has led to an increase in cases amongst a population with preexisting conditions due to asbestos exposure.
Although the Libby vermiculite mine closed for good in the 1990s, in the decades prior the town and its residents had been exposed to asbestos spewing from the site. Vermiculite itself does not contain asbestos, but the two are both naturally occurring minerals that are often found side by side one another. If companies sourcing and processing vermiculite do not exercise due caution, innocent workers and nearby residents can be put at risk for exposure to the dangerous carcinogen.
The operator of the mine, W.R. Grace, faces an estimated 100,000 lawsuits, many of which are asbestos claims related to its operation of the Libby vermiculite mine. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency added Libby to the list of its Superfund sites, spending more than $600 million to clean up thousands of homes and remove millions of yards of contaminated soil and W.R. Grace also agreed to pay more than $250 million for the cleanup. The state of Montana itself agreed to $68 million in total settlements related to the Libby mine in the years between 2011 and 2017.
Now, with the threat of COVID-19 looming over Lincoln County and the town of Libby, residents again face an existential health crisis just as many were putting their lives back together. To combat the threat posed by the coronavirus, the county public health office has issued an order requiring residents to wear masks in public, regardless of how many cases of COVID-19 the county has. Unfortunately, many in the county are distrustful of a state and local government which has let them down over the decades, possibly complicating efforts to mitigate the spread of a disease to which residents are especially vulnerable.
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