A small victory for Libby


Rarely has good news emerged from Libby, Mont., in recent decades. Hundreds of residents of the small town have died and thousands more have been sickened from exposure to asbestos fibers, which spread from a local vermiculite mine throughout the community, ending up lodged in people's lungs. Kids used to play in mine waste, and workers tracked asbestos-laced dust into their homes on their boots and clothing. As HCN senior editor Ray Ring reported in 2005, "The corporation that ran the mine from 1963 to 1990, W.R. Grace & Co., knew of the risks for decades. So did state and federal agencies. Yet they allowed the victims to be exposed." Though the mine has been closed for years, it continues to claim victims. Last year, we reported that 15 to 20 new people were "diagnosed each month with illnesses related to Libby asbestos." To date, no one has paid criminally for the widespread poisoning. 

Under such grim circumstances, it's difficult to call the latest news from Libby "good." But it's at least better: Monetary compensation is finally on its way to more than 1,000 of those sickened in Libby. Last week, a judge approved a $43 million settlement, the result of some 200 lawsuits filed against the state of Montana for its failure to protect residents from exposure. According to the Idaho Spokesman-Review, a third of that money will cover attorney's fees, and "1,125 victims of lung diseases will collect from $21,500 to $60,700 apiece."

It's not much. "I've lost my father, my mother, my stepmother and my father in law," Mike Nelson, a former Libby resident who has asbestosis, told the Associated Press. "They're all dead. All from asbestos. ... W.R. Grace was the one responsible, but right now, I hate my government. The state knew. The money isn't going to do anything for me."

There may not be any way to compensate Libby residents for their suffering. Money won't ever make it right. 

However, the government and corporations can at least try not to repeat past mistakes, and do more to protect public health. If recent news is any indication, though, I'm not sure that lesson has been learned. President Obama recently decided to forego the health benefits of stricter ozone standards, which would have helped clear respiratory-illness-causing smog nationwide, in order not to unduly stress industry in a down economy. (Nevermind that the actual burdens of new pollution controls are rarely as great as polluters claim they will be.) Was that decision as egregious as W.R. Grace and public officials knowingly allowing Libby residents to inhale asbestos for years? Certainly not. But as a New York Times editorial recently put it: "There is still no excuse for compromising on public health and allowing politics to trump science."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor

Photo courtesy Flickr user avlxyz.

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