116 minutes, 2007, DVCAM

“Libby, Montana”, March 2004
by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Libby, Montana is a small blue collar town. Until the late 80’s, residents worked mainly in logging and related industries. As well as in mining. Mining jobs came via the Asarco Silver Mine and from W.R. Grace, who owned and operated a vermiculite mine and vermiculite processing facilities. W.R. Grace closed in 1990 and Ansarco followed a few years later along with a sawmill and a plywood factory. Gradually the residents of Libby lost a way of life where, as town Mayor Tony Berget said in last June’s Libby High School commencement address “Families had decent incomes, most families had health insurance, most families could take a vacation.” Libby’s loss is not unique: many blue collar towns have met similar fates. But what was different for Libby was that decades of W.R. Grace vermiculite mining and processing had left behind a time bomb of asbestos related disease. The vermiculite ore found in Libby was contaminated with asbestos fibers. Mining and processing resulted in the fibers being spread to numerous buildings throughout the town. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted medical testing for Libby residents in the Summer of 2000. They found mortality in Libby from asbestosis (an incurable asbestos related disease which inflames lung tissue and causes lung scarring) was 40 to 80 times higher than expected and mortality from lung cancer 20 to 30% higher.

The story of the impact of asbestos contamination in Libby and related social, political and legal issues, are the topic of a film called “Libby, Montana” which was made, and just released by, High Plains Films, in Missoula, Montana. Libby received widespread newsmedia coverage in the late 90’s. The possibility was raised that CEO Peter Grace’s friendship with Ronald Reagan helped W.R. Grace dodge culpability. The film moves closer to Libby’s heart and soul than did the news coverage. The filmmakers didn’t do a hit and run but hung in there with cameras rolling. High Plains Films was formed in the early 90’s by self taught documentary filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davies and Drury Gunn Carr. Since then, High Plains Films productions have won over 30 awards at festivals nationwide. Contact info for High Plains follows. Incidentally, despite the troubles which came to Libby its citizens remain public spirited. Within 6 hours of 9/11 the town’s volunteer fire department raised $15,000 for the victims. Ultimately Libby’s per capita contribution was among the highest in the nation.