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for people who care about the West

Libby is not what you think


Libby, Mont., is a strange place. In the morning, the Cabinet Mountains sparkle, sporting new snow way up on the highest peaks. Folks arrive at work, open the front doors of their businesses and shout out "Mornin'" from across the street. Joggers pass by my house, dodging a stray doe that lingers after a night of garden feasting.

Yes, this is also the town that in July was declared a "disaster area." The EPA described what happened to this town as the worst case of industrial poisoning of a community in American history. Libby is covered with asbestos, or more accurately, it was.

For close to 70 years, the same corporation that inspired the movie "A Civil Action" mined asbestos-containing vermiculite close to the town. For years, the workers drove to the mine along the banks of the magnificent Kootenai River. Most mornings, they were probably smiling because they knew they had the best jobs in town. There was medical insurance and vacation, pension, sick leave, decent hours and good pay.

They took the raw ore from the mountain and crushed it, sifted it and loaded it. Pictures in the public library in Libby show the mine sending up a 50-foot-tall plume of dust. The plume also contained lung-destroying asbestos that fed into air currents coming off the Kootenai high country. Of course, there's no mining today, though you wouldn't know it from the recent media coverage. From Fox News to Democracy Now; they've all picked up on the disaster bandwagon, and they've all made Libby look like a death town.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is a place where folks tool victoriously into the parking lot of the supermarket where I work, a little too fast, perhaps, sometime in November. They are excited to show their friends and neighbors the moose, or seven-point elk, or maybe even a cougar, lying stiff and silent in the back of their pickup. This is a place where a 10-minute drive and another 10-minute walk will give you a chance of seeing big horn sheep. Take a short drive up river and look up on the top of the power poles, and you'll spot Osprey nests and a bald eagle or two.

And the people? They're the best. My weeds were too high, and so I got a ticket. A friend offered his teenage boys to weed-whack. The next day, when I arrived home for lunch, the dandelions had been buzzed, the goldenrod clipped and the grass trimmed just right. A neighbor said, "Oh, Frank was here today." No teenage sons, just my neighbor, who was born and raised in Libby.

But I'm not a Pollyanna. Sometimes at the market I see someone struggling to pull an oxygen tank. There is the man who tries to hide how hard it is for him to lift his gallon of milk up and onto my check stand. I want to jump over the counter and do it for him. Some -- no, many -- of my neighbors have asbestosis. A much smaller number suffer from mesothelioma, cancer of the inner lining of the lungs, a disease pretty much unheard of except in folks who have breathed in a lot of asbestos.

Most mornings, in the deli seating area of the market, broad-shouldered, gray-haired men drink coffee and talk about the new porch or the firewood deadfall up on Granite Creek. Sitting right next to them is a 20-something peering at Facebook, taking advantage of the new Wi-Fi available here. There is no disconnect; everybody gets along.  Folks will balk at a concert ticket over $10, but gladly spend $50 at the American Legion benefit for someone's wife who has cancer.

But there is a disconnect for those of us who have recently arrived, who are in minimal danger of contamination, who have had our small-windowed, tin-roofed houses cleaned up by the government, and our yards excavated and filled back in, those of us fortunate enough to have grown up playing in sawdust rather than piles of asbestos-contaminated dirt.

Now, we are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We can take our pick of 20 lakes with their trout, kokanee salmon, bass perch and pike. Newcomers like me and the grizzlies just up the mountain have figured out that this is a promised land.

Our family and friends in places like California don't know it, though, and some think we are living in a death town. We are not. We are living in a town that has endured more hardship, loss and sadness than any town could ever deserve, but it is a town that's still very much alive.

Moira Blazi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Not long ago she moved from Santa Barbara, California, to Libby, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].