The dangers of asbestos have affected thousands of residents in the small town of Libby, Montana for decades. In 1919, the town that was once known for its logging industry discovered vermiculite mines – a naturally occurring mineral that is useful for fire-proofing, wall and loft insulation, and even soil conditioning. W.R. Grace bought the mine in 1963, and for decades the mines produced 80% of the world’s vermiculite – something that gave the residents of Libby a sense of community and pride.
Later, it was found that the vermiculite contained traces of asbestos fibers, particularly tremolite asbestos. Tremolite asbestos is considered to be one of the more harmful types of asbestos because the fibers are not only smaller, but sharper, which allows the fibers to become embedded deep into the tissue and lining of vital organs. Workers in these vermiculite mines would return home covered in dust, exposing their families to the carcinogen. W.R. Grace donated the leftover waste from the vermiculite mines to schools, to make running tracks, ice rinks, and baseball fields. This caused children and other residents of the town to unknowingly be exposed to asbestos fibers during community events. Over the years, the rise of asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis have been directly linked to the vermiculite mines and the negligence of W.R. Grace.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the EPA began a massive clean-up of the vermiculite that poisoned and killed over 400 residents in the small town of a couple thousand. In 2009, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provided Medicare benefits to those affected by the asbestos in Libby and even created a pilot program that offers wide-ranging patient care for those who are not covered by Medicare. Last week, events regarding the repeal of the ACA had residents of Libby worried that they will no longer be protected under the new healthcare system when it is implemented.
Residents from Libby will be relieved to know that the special provisions written into the ACA will be preserved because there is not a full repeal of Obamacare. The new proposed bill does not specifically mention the Libby provisions, meaning the benefits will remain the same as implemented in 2009.
Current provisions for the residents include the following:
- Money for a screening program known, as CARD which stands for Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases. This is important because of the long latency period between asbestos exposure and illness. People need to actively be screened for complications from asbestos exposure.
- Anyone diagnosed with any sort of asbestos-related illness is eligible for Medicare.
- The installation of a pilot program that pays for medical care for those who are not covered by Medicare.
Libby residents can rest easy for now, but the disagreement among Republicans and moderate Republicans mean that this bill has a long way to go before becoming law.
David McCumber, “Daines: GOP Health-Care Bill Preserves Benefits for Libby Asbestos Victims,” Montana Standard (March 7, 2017). [Link]