The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared its first-ever “public emergency,” stating the federal government will give $6 million to the health authority in Lincoln County, Montana to provide medical care to people who were sickened by asbestos from a mine. The money is intended to pay for what insurance will not, and cover the medical bills of people without insurance. The declaration applies to the towns of Libby and Troy, where for decades workers in the town mined for vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation. Unknowingly, the workers were poisoning themselves because the vermiculite contained a toxic form of asbestos, which the workers carried home on their clothes.
Although the two towns’ combined population is only 3,900, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 500 residents have asbestos-related illnesses such as lung cancer and asbestosis. A department spokesperson estimates fifty new cases are diagnosed every year, including some in family members who never stepped foot in the mine. Senator Jon Tester of Montana claims no family in the area has escaped exposure.
The EPA’s announcement came about six weeks after a Montana jury acquitted the chemical company W.R. Grace and three of its executives on charges that they withheld important information regarding the dangers of the mine. W.R. Grace ran the mine from 1963 until it closed in 1990, though vermiculite had been removed from the mine since the early 20th century. Although the Department of Health and Human Services has spent about $46 million in the past ten years for diagnostic screening programs and paying to improve health care, the new $6 million is to be given directly to patients.