"It was a Superfund site," my friend Nina told me, joking about a house she and her husband nearly bought in the crunched real estate market of the greater Yellowstone area. At first they loved the house and its affordable price.
Then an inspector informed them that the building
was full of asbestos-laden vermiculite from Libby, Mont. Though the
realtor tried to talk them into the deal anyway -- "It's not so
bad" -- they walked away.
Two other friends weren't so
lucky. The couple found their dream home in a small town near
Glacier National Park. The weekly newspaper he worked for agreed to
open a satellite office for him to run. The house had a finished
basement, perfect for his wife's midwifery business. Then they
began tearing out carpet and digging into walls to remodel and
found a nightmare: insulation from Libby.
between 15 million and 35 million buildings in the United States
have been insulated with vermiculite mined from Libby. The
vermiculite is loaded with tremolite asbestos, a virulent form of
the fibrous mineral that causes lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis.
In Libby, a pretty mountain community of about 12,000 people, the
death toll is around 200 and growing. The number of residents
diagnosed with those terminal diseases is nearly 2,000.
W.R. Grace Corp., which operated the vermiculite mine in Libby for
nearly 30 years, made millions of dollars selling its
do-it-yourself insulation to homeowners across America. The steel
beams of the World Trade Center in New York were also fireproofed
with vermiculite from Libby. It's not difficult to clean asbestos
out of a building. But it is costly. In Libby, where the EPA has
been cleaning out homes, businesses and schoolyards, the cost was
averaging $50,000 per house at the end of 2002. Grace spun off its
assets in the mid-1990s in anticipation of asbestos-related
lawsuits, then declared itself bankrupt in 2001. That left the
Environmental Protection Agency to pick up the tab, with funding
coming from the beleaguered federal Superfund.
who had moved near Glacier National Park were already stretched
thin financially by their new mortgage. They could afford only the
$5,000 it cost to seal the deadly insulation in their walls.
Further remodeling is prohibited, for as the EPA discovered in
Libby, installing so much as a ceiling fan can send asbestos levels
through the roof.
The experience of my friends is not
unique. When I was promoting my book about Libby and asbestos this
summer, a woman in Colorado nervously asked me, "My cabin is full
of it; do you think that's bad?" A woman on a Utah radio talk show
was perturbed when I told her she had a choice between spending
tens of thousands to remove it from her home, or merely thousands
to seal it in.
"But we've already been exposed," she said,
her voice full of anxiety. I had no answer for her. Nor for my
friend when she asks me the same question, worried about her
husband's health because he worked in the dust before they
discovered the vermiculite.
"Would you live here?" she
wants to know. I hesitate to tell her "no." It took me a year to
get up the courage up to look in my own attic.
people of Libby, those who peek in their attics and find
vermiculite have few places to turn for help. Though Grace knew
before buying the mine in 1963 that the vermiculite was
contaminated, and knew soon thereafter that some of its employees
were sick and dying, it washed its hands of responsibility. My
friends, and the woman in Utah, and the one in Colorado, and
millions of others, must weigh their health against their
pocketbooks and find some balance they can live with.
Grace's assets are now being litigated in bankruptcy court. A judge
could decide to force the corporation to pay its bills - even if
that forces Grace into true bankruptcy.
But when the
officers of a corporation show such little conscience, such
disregard for their fellow human beings, I think it's time--as one
man dying with asbestosis told me -- for that corporation "to
disappear from the face of the earth."