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"Libby, Montana" exposes legacy of environmental pollution

| August 29, 2007 12:00 AM

A documentary film on Libby's asbestos exposure aired on PBS on Tuesday evening.

"Libby, Montana," is a film about the asbestos exposure to the city of Libby at the hands of the W.R. Grace company. The film will be airing as a P.O.V. series on KSPS Channel 7 on Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 29 at 5 a.m.; Sunday, Sept. 2 at 5 a.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 2 at 11 p.m. The film will also be airing on the Montana PBS Channel 9 on Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m.; Thursday, Aug. 30 at 2 a.m.; and Thursday, Aug. 30 at 4:30 a.m.

The P.O.V. series (a cinema term for "point of view") celebrates its 20th year on PBS in 2007. It is American television's longest-running independent documentary series.

P.O.V.'s Libby, Montana, by Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis, airs nationally on Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. on PBS.

Nestled below the rugged peaks of the Northern Rockies in Montana—as iconic a representation of America's "purple mountain majesties" as one can find—lies the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history. In the small town of Libby, many hundreds of people are sick or have already died from asbestos exposure. "Libby, Montana" takes a long working day's journey into a blue-collar community, and finds a different reality—one where the American Dream exacts a terrible price.

But "Libby, Montana" is also the story of an ideal betrayed in a way that crosses political lines and raises questions about the role of corporate power in American politics, and environmental pollution that extracts its highest costs from ordinary citizens. 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.

The directors of "Libby, Montana" use archival footage, news reports and the words of a range of participants—from ex-miners and their families to Earl Lovick (the mine's former head manager who died in 1999) to EPA field workers to the state's governor, Judy Martz, and then-EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman. In 2005, seven Grace executives were criminally indicted for knowingly endangering the residents of Libby: a case due to go to trial this fall.

"Even as we documented the history of the town and the clean-up efforts, the story of Libby took on a larger life as Congress was forced to consider what to do about the millions of homes and other buildings in the U.S. filled with vermiculite from Libby," said co-director Drury Gunn Carr.

"Libby is a hard-working, blue-collar community that personifies the American Dream, but the story we had to tell was about the dream gone horribly wrong," adds co-director Doug Hawes-Davis. "Industrialists, politicians, workers and ordinary citizens all play a role in this American tragedy."

Montana Sen. Max Baucus is threatening to subpoena the Environmental Protection Agency over why asbestos poisoning in Libby was never declared a public health emergency. Baucus has requested five-year-old documents from the EPA, detailing deliberations over whether it would declare such an emergency. Baucus says the declaration would have led to more extensive cleanup, and health protections for the town.

During a visit to Libby, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said he would get the documents to Baucus by Aug. 31. The vermiculite, used in a variety of household products, contained tremolite asbestos, which was released into the air and carried home on miners' clothing. The asbestos is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people. The EPA, which has declared the area a Superfund site, first arrived in Libby in 1999, when news reports linked asbestos contamination from the mine to the deaths and illnesses.