This Montana town rallied for care after asbestos exposure

  • Mine workers in Libby, Montana, fell ill from asbestos exposure
  • Residents worked with their senator to attain health care coverage
  • He says a similar approach could work in East Palestine, Ohio

(NewsNation) — The EPA hasn’t yet declared a public health emergency in East Palestine, Ohio, following a toxic train derailment in February.

Other areas have faced similar hardships, including Missouri, where the town of Times Beach no longer exists due to toxic chemicals sprayed there 40 years ago. Another town in Montana was poisoned by asbestos in the 1980s.

Some believe those residents’ stories could serve as a blueprint for East Palestine locals desperately seeking medical care.

Nestled in the mountains along the Kootenai River, Libby, Montana, is as beautiful a setting for a town as you can imagine.

But the dark reality is that it’s the site of one of the worst corporate environmental disasters in history.

“It was everywhere,” Gayla Benefield said.

For years, workers in the dusty vermiculite mine didn’t know it was contaminated with deadly asbestos fibers, though the company — W.R. Grace — did.

It spread all through town.

“My grandkids, my children. Now, four or five of my children diagnosed,” Benefield said. “Nine out of 11 of my grandchildren … their first day of exposure was at summer school and kindergarten.” 

Benefield watched her father and then her mother die of what she called “take-home asbestos.”

Then, she filed a lawsuit.

“Nobody else would do it,” she said.

W.R. Grace paid millions of dollars in claims before going bankrupt in 2001, but health problems persisted.

Dr. Brad Black helped establish the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease in Libby, Montana.

“Seventy-four hundred residents were screened over the first two summers — 2000, 2001,” Black said. “And over 18% of them had abnormalities on their X-rays.”

Residents were dying and couldn’t get health care.

LeRoy Tom worked at the mine.  

“They denied obvious cases,” he said. “They just denied them.”

Benefield said residents got Max Baucus, their U.S. senator at the time, involved.

“I just found right then and there: I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring justice to the people in Libby, Montana,” Baucus said. “In a town meeting, their complaint with the EPA (wasn’t) doing very much, so I turned to my assistant there in front of everybody. I said, ‘Get the EPA Administrator on the line right now. Let’s find out what the heck’s going on here.’”

Baucus pushed the EPA to declare a public health emergency.

It was 2009, and then-President Barack Obama was pushing health care reform. Baucus had an idea.

As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus rallied for a provision of the Affordable Care Act that granted Medicare coverage for individuals exposed to environmental health hazards to help Libby residents.

Today, everyone in Libby, regardless of age, is eligible for Medicare if they have been affected by asbestos.

“He saved the community,” Benefield said. “That’s all I can say. Absolutely. He was our savior.”

It was a lesson, Baucus said, that senators can get results if they focus and “raise hell” with the EPA and appropriate federal agencies. He believes similar tactics could be effective in areas like East Palestine, Ohio, where residents are recovering from the burning off of toxic chemicals after a train derailment earlier this year.

“The squeaky wheel does get the grease,” he said. “If you really do focus, then I do think that people in Ohio who suffered from this train wreck are going to get assistance.”


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