I came across this review for Libby, Montana, the documentary on the W.R. Grace Company vermiculite mine, and was taken by the closing sentence.
“…but at its root is the recognition that Libby, Montana isn’t a red-state or blue-state story. It is a story about American democracy and American capitalism, and the battle that must constantly be waged to keep the latter from consuming the former.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, the W.R. Grace company operated a vermiculite mine and harvested tremolite, a dangerous form of asbestos, from 1963 to 1990, despite knowing as early as the 1950’s that tremolite posed a serious public health risk. The residents of Libby, Montana, and virtually all the employees at the mine, were unknowingly exposed to tremolite over that period, with the company slyly avoiding the term asbestos while lobbying on capitol hill to relax restrictions on asbestos use.
Despite the health hazards, asbestos had proven useful in many commercial applications, serving as both an insulator and fireproofer among many other purposes. In the 1970’s, when many companies were ceasing production of products containing asbestos over growing public safety concerns, the W.C. Grace Company created a product called Monokote, which they marketed as asbestos free, knowing full well this was blatantly false, and capitalized off of the unknowing public. Eventually the secret came out that Monokote contained 1% asbestos, but the W.C. Grace Company was able to successfully lobby the EPA, who was considering an outright ban on asbestos at the time, and actually succeeded in creating what was dubbed “The Grace Rule”: a ruling which stated that products containing 1% or less asbestos could be marketed as asbestos free. This despite the fact that now, as then, there are no known safe levels of exposure to asbestos.
And what toll has this capitalist tragedy had on our country and the residents of Libby, Montana?
“In Libby, 70 years of strip-mining vermiculite ore and marketing a product called “Zonolite” exposed workers, their families, and thousands of residents to asbestos fibers associated with the vermiculite ore, creating what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called the worst case of industrial poisoning of a whole community in American history. W.R. Grace acquired the Zonolite Company in 1963, and closed the mine in 1990.”
“An estimated 35 million homes in the U.S. contain Zonolite insulation. When the EPA began screening Libby residents in 2000, over 1,200 of those tested, or roughly one-quarter of the town’s population, were found to have lung abnormalities associated with asbestos exposure: 10 times the national average. Mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos, was at least 100 times the national average. Libby was declared a national Superfund site in 2002.”
This is another example in this country of economics taking precedent over life.