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The Great White Death: Hundreds Dying From Asbestos Poisoning in Libby, Montana

December 15, 1999


Today, an unbelievable story about profit and death: the story of Libby, Montana, a small town whose population is dying of asbestos poisoning.

It has been documented in a chilling series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, by reporter Andrew Schneider. In the first article, Schneider wrote:

First, it killed some miners.

Then it killed wives and children, slipping into their homes on the dusty clothing of hard-working men.

Now the mine is closed, but in Libby, the killing goes on.

The W. R. Grace Company knew, from the time it bought the Zonolite vermiculite mine in 1963, why the people in Libby were dying.

But for the 30 years it owned the mine, the company did not stop it.

Neither did the governments.

Not the town of Libby, not Lincoln County. Not the state of Montana, not federal mining, health and environmental agencies, not anyone else charged with protecting the public health.

An investigation conducted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has revealed that at least 192 people have died from asbestos in the mine’s vermiculite ore, another 375 people have been diagnosed with the fatal illness, and doctors say the toll could be much higher. So far, 187 civil actions have been filed against Grace on behalf of Libby’s miners and their families. Scores more are expected as former workers, their families and other Libby residents are diagnosed with cancer and other asbestos-spawned illnesses.

People became ill after inhaling tremolite, an exceedingly rare and toxic form of asbestos, when the mine spewed more than two tons of it every day into the air, six days a week, in a fine white dust that settled over the mountainside and often blew into the town of Libby. The asbestos was released into the atmosphere during the process of mining for the vermiculite, which is used as an insulative material.

80 percent of the world’s vermiculite comes from Libby; the rest is from South Africa and South Carolina.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act (HR 1283 and S758) which would limit the ability of people to sue asbestos companies for damages.


  • Bonnie Gestring, from the Montana Environmental Information Center.
  • Roger Sullivan, attorney who represents many residents of Libby in asbestos claims.
  • Mark Simonich, head of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality.
  • Helen Bundrock, resident of Libby who is sick with asbestosis. Her husband Arthur recently died of the illness, and four of her five children also have the illness.
  • Gayla Benefield, resident of Libby whose parents died of asbestos-related illness.
  • Don Judge, Executive Secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO.
  • Frank Clemente, Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.
  • Chris Edley, professor, Harvard Law School and co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project who wrote the legislation for the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act. He is a member of the Civil Rights Commission. He was a domestic policy aide in the Carter White House, national issues director of the Dukakis campaign, and served as special counsel to President Clinton.

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