COVID-19 Stalks A Montana Town Already Grappling With Asbestos Disease

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Frank Fahland, 61, is one of hundreds of Libby, Mont., residents who has an asbestos-related disease. That makes them potentially more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau


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Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau

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The town of Libby along the Kootenai River in Montana in winter 2010. Libby has emerged as the deadliest Superfund site in the nation’s history: at least 400 people have died from asbestos-related diseases after breathing in asbestos-contaminated dust from a nearby vermiculite mine.

Rick Bowmer/AP


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Rick Bowmer/AP

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A decontamination crew from the Environmental Protection Agency works on extracting asbestos fibers from a barn in the Libby area. The EPA has cleaned thousands of homes, buildings, and public spaces in the most expensive environmental clean up in American history.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images


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Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

A decontamination crew from the Environmental Protection Agency works on extracting asbestos fibers from a barn in the Libby area. The EPA has cleaned thousands of homes, buildings, and public spaces in the most expensive environmental clean up in American history.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Also, the former mine site and surrounding forest have not been cleaned, leading the EPA to classify the Superfund site as still not under control for human exposure to asbestos. Those most at risk of exposure are loggers, firefighters and trespassers, the EPA said.

The county public health officer has issued an order requiring people in the area to wear masks in public, regardless of how many cases of COVID-19 the county has — a more stringent rule than the statewide requirement to wear a mask in counties where there are four or more active cases of the viral disease.

Though many in the community have accepted public health guidelines to avoid the coronavirus, a strong libertarian streak runs through this remote county on the U.S.-Canada border, where residents’ distrust of government is heightened by the town’s history with the mine.

Doug Shaw, 69, is another resident with lungs scarred from breathing in asbestos. He blames W.R. Grace and the state government for covering up the contamination for decades, and calls Libby’s asbestos deaths murder.

«They profiteered off our precious lives and soul,» Shaw says.

Grace officials did not directly respond to Shaw’s accusations, but instead referred to the company’s financial relief fund for residents with asbestos-related illness.

Shaw is also frustrated by the government’s coronavirus-related restrictions on events and businesses.

«It’s nuts. Nobody has to live like this. We need to get back to work,» he says.

The county has allowed large public events, such as a rodeo and an international chainsaw competition, to take place. The local economy is dependent on tourism cash from those events, but there is worry that visitors could help spread coronavirus through the community.

«We need people to come here and spend money and jolt the economy,» Fahland says. «Problem is, with that rodeo, there were faces in that crowd that have different license plates that came from different places that may have had issues.»

Julie Kendall works as a phlebotomist at a local hospital and was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease two months ago. She echoed that concern.

«These people that come to these events from out of town are going to our gas stations and our grocery stores,» she says. «They could be exposing you right there.»

Kendall sat at a picnic table near some railroad tracks where she was exposed to asbestos as a child. The area used to be home to a community swimming pool and children would play near piles of mine waste. She says she sees a similarity between asbestos and the novel coronavirus.

«It’s unseen,» she says. «You can be doing the most innocent thing and it could still get you.»

But Kendall also believes those parallels have given folks like her a leading edge on dealing with this pandemic.

«We’re already afraid here,» she says. «So it’s kind of like one more shake of the dice. You can’t live every day in fear. But here we do.»

This story came from a reporting partnership between NPR, Kaiser Health News and the Mountain West News Bureau.

  • coronavirus pandemic
  • superfund site
  • asbestos
  • mesothelioma
  • asbestos mining
  • Environmental Protection Agency

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