Images from Libby, Montana

The DVD menu highlights the film's ominous tone and its horrific subject: the environmental injustice of asbestos exposure.

The film provides few scenes of the actual asbestos factory. This archival footage from the 1950s gives us a glimpse of its size.

Massive amounts of dust rise out of the Zonolite vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana.

This is one of the few shots of the mine provided in Libby, Montana.

EPA representative Paul Peronard negotiates a Superfund solution with townspeople and bureaucrats in Libby, Montana. The film provides a positive perspective on EPA field workers like Peronard not always found in environmental documentaries.

Then Montana governor Judy Martz discusses the Zonolite problem with Montana Senator Bill Chrismore during a brief visit to Libby.

To memorialize those who died from asbestos-related illnesses, the townspeople of Libby construct crosses for each death.

Libby, Montana personalizes this environmental tragedy by focusing on the lives of Les and Bob, two victims who died from asbestos-related disease.

The film’s ending suggests that asbestos exposure is still a hazard in the U.S., with as many as 35 million homes containing Zonolite insulation from Libby, Montana.


Libby, Montana and the Superfund

Libby, Montana, however, did receive a recommendation from the EPA for a superfund site status, and the narrative surrounding the superfund’s implementation is documented well in Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis’s traditionally structured Libby, Montana (2004). With a synthetic approach that combines interviews with victims with news reports and archival footage of mining operations providing historical context, the film illustrates the dire living conditions in Libby, where for decades the Zonolite Company mined vermiculite, a mineral used for insulation that also contained tremolite, a deadly type of asbestos. This more traditional approach to documentary also incorporates a balanced perspective of the environmental issue virtually missing from Blue Vinyl.

Opening scenes of Libby, Montana draw from a science film illustrating the rise of vermiculite, a source of asbestos, as an ancient mineral from the earth’s core. This science film also demonstrates the versatility of asbestos by showing its flexible mineral structure
Many early scenes provide a nostalgic glimpse of the pristine waters and forests around Libby. This scene shows archival footage from what look like the 1930s of a lake surrounded by forested hills. The film includes different parts of a regional map. In this segment, the Zonolite Company’s location is pinpointed.
This scene also provides a nostalgic look at Libby’s past. The shot is in color, suggesting that it came from a more recent era. The map of the region gives very specific information about vermiculite mining by the Zonolite Company.
Although the film depicts the region's past from a nostalgic perspective, it gives a nod to other environmental disasters in the area. This scene illustrating lumbering practices foreshadows ... ... the overcutting that occurred over the decades in the lumber industry. Nostalgia seems unwarranted when juxtaposed with images of a past that encouraged exploitIng resources. The number of felled trees in this scene is both awe inspiring and horrific.

Unlike Blue Vinyl, Libby Montana looks more like what Patricia Aufderheide calls a “regular documentary,” featuring

“sonorous, ‘voice-of God’ narration, an analytical argument rather than a story with characters, head shots of experts leavened with a few people-on the-street interviews, stock images that illustrate the narrator’s point ...,perhaps a little educational animation, and dignified music” (10).

This “regular” synthetic approach weakens the film’s rhetoric, so the documentary remains compelling only because the human impact of eco-disaster in the Libby community infuses an emotional appeal to the audience and filmmakers.

The documentary’s approach muffles their argument in multiple ways. Instead of structuring the film as an anti-corporate argument, for example, Carr and Hawes-Davis organize it like a mystery, with facts revealed slowly to build toward a conclusion. Although Helfand and Gold choose a similar structure, because they also include a clear position and a personal narrative with which audiences can connect, their film maintains its strong rhetoric consistently. Because of its mystery structure, Libby, Montana, on the other hand, can, as Mike Hale of the New York Times explains,

“be hard to follow and frustratingly incomplete if you don’t already know the framework of the long-running and complex story.” 

The film’s attempt to take a balanced approach to the issues of asbestos poisoning and cleanup also dilutes the film’s rhetoric. By including conflicting perspectives like those of townspeople suspicious of the EPA, as well as bureaucrats concerned about the economic downsides of a Superfund designation, the filmmakers’ own sympathies with those affected by asbestos become less clear.

The historical strategy Carr and Hawes-Davis implement with their subject may also limit the power of the film’s rhetoric because it lacks the personal appeal of Blue Vinyl and shifts its strategy from argument to exposition, slowing down its momentum and, perhaps, causing audiences to lose interest in the mystery being revealed (perhaps too sluggishly). For us, however, the historical approach doesn’t go far enough to reveal the history of resource exploitation in place in the West since at least the General Mining Act of 1872 which declared that

“all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase.”  

Instead, the film takes an historical approach in its narrative that begins with the transition from logging to mining in the mid-20th Century, drawing on an environmental nostalgia for a once pristine region and highlighting the town’s surrounding forests, lakes, and mountains.

Libby, Montana’s welcoming sign illustrates the town’s ties to a frontier past of forests and wildlife, an ironic touch in what has become a cancer alley. Although many reviewers criticize the multiple scenes highlighting the road-side evangelist, in this shot he condemns the asbestos producers in ways that move the narrative of the film forward.
A taxidermy shop serves as another sign of the mythical wild past Libby continues to embrace. Nostalgia lingers for a more pristine era before Zonolite as with this annual Logging Days celebration. This sign welcomes area visitors to the festival.
To emphasize the irony behind the celebration, Libby locals watch a parade during Logging Days in front of a store selling lumber. These locals struggle with an EPA that in their eyes challenges the rugged individualism on which the town and region were built. The film takes the time to illustrate the benefits Zonolite brought to the community as one of the biggest producers of asbestos and its offshoot products, including insulation and fertilizer.

Shots demonstrate how this simpler lifestyle translated to an idyllic town life in the 1950s.  According to the EPA, however,

“While in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite. Vermiculite has been used in building insulation and as a soil conditioner. Unfortunately, the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with a toxic form of naturally-occurring asbestos called tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers” (“Libby Site Background”).

Despite this nostalgia for the pristine Libby before vermiculite, the film also suggests that the area’s resources have been depleted for years, explaining that after fur traders left the area, logging companies came in and overcut and harvested the mountain forests, depleting resources in the Montana region. According to the film, there were up to 2000 people working in the Forest Service and 200 in the mine during this seemingly untouched period, and Libby was seen as a flourishing community. Yet today, Libby is still represented as a good place to hunt and fish. Visitors can tour the Mineral Avenue attractions and social clubs on the down town main streets. The police are efficient and protect tourists suggesting that the town has remained untouched by the modern world, and loggers’ days and taxidermist exhibits commemorate the logging and fur trading industries of more than half a century ago.

To further confuse the message of the film, interviews reveal the pain behind the beauty. One worker in the Zonolite mine, for example, suffered health problems because the Zonolite Company and, after 1963, W.R. Grace, Incorporated, developed vermiculite into products that were found near his farm. To introduce the source of the vermiculite, the film provides shots of the mine from above. The film explains that vermiculite was procured through strip-mining that began as early as 1919 and used for insulation and fertilizer, products managed and distributed by the Scotts Lawn Care Company. What the film reveals, however, is that workers in the mine were dying of cancer at astronomical rates, a horrific truth local W. R. Grace manager Earl D. Lovick knew but dismissed for profit.

Here one of the victims of vermiculite poisoning, Les Skramstad, a long-time Zonolite employee, explains his own health concerns. Les was reluctant to talk with the filmmakers because his neighbors had labeled him a radical for suggesting W.R. Grace and Zonolite had contributed to his disease. Les and his family share happier days in a family photo taken while Les worked for Zonolite.
Libby, Montana includes multiple shots of the trial determining Zonolite’s culpability in the massive cancer deaths in the region. From 1963 forward, the company was owned by W.R. Grace, and local manager, Earl Lovick, served as the star witness in the case. Lovick died of asbestos-related cancer in 1999. Like Blue Vinyl, Libby, Montana shows actual documented evidence of corporate knowledge of the dangers of asbestos exposure. This piece highlights the toxicity of vermiculite. Within two years of acquiring the mine, Grace's internal memos show the company discussing the mine dust's extreme toxicity — information never given to employees.
Another victim, Bob Wilkins, recounts his own experiences as a Zonolite employee. Because the dust from the mine clogged their breathing apparatus, many employees removed them in order to continue working and keep their jobs. No one at Zonolite informed them of the dangers of vermiculite exposure and inhalation. This letter displayed in Libby, Montana, serves as clear evidence that W.R. Grace and Zonolite were culpable in the rash of asbestos-related cancers spreading through Libby and the surrounding area.

On top of this flagrant act of subterfuge, the mine waste was also uncontrolled because of downsizing of the EPA and its affiliates during the Reagan administration (1981-1988), and W. R. Grace, Incorporated embezzled $4 billion and declared bankruptcy, so the US government would have to pay for the cleanup.[3] [open endnotes in new window]

Because of this complex context, the film asserts that Libby needs a Superfund designation from the EPA in order to finance the cleanup, a claim then EPA chief Christy Whitman supports in spite of Montana’s governor (Judy Murtz) ability to veto the National Priorities List (NPL) Superfund funds. In 2002, a guarantee for clean up but not for health or insulation removal was approved. The Public Health Emergency was excluded because of federal funding cuts. The rest of the film documents the reasons for the Superfund designation and its results. The filmmakers first emphasize and describe workers whose health was destroyed because of vermiculite: Bob Wilkins, who worked from 1969-1990, a worker now in North Dakota with almost no lungs left and another miner who gets x-rays every year with no report, for example. These workers and others contract asbestosis and other forms of cancer.

The film also demonstrates that there is proof that the company knew of these consequences since 1948.  Corporate heads knew by 1956 that there was asbestos in the dust, but the workers did not know that tremolite, in the dust, was asbestos. The company had even documented the percent of workers dying on a graph that only corporate heads would see. According to this graph, ninety two percent of employees die by the time they have worked for the company for twenty years. And the cancers were not confined to miners and workers in the plant. Workers’ whole families contracted cancer. As of May 2002, according to the film, the EPA study reveals 246 asbestos deaths and 1200 diagnoses of asbestos poisoning.  Because of these deaths and illnesses, the EPA designates the town as a Superfund site and attempts to clean up the tremolite asbestos in the mine, plants, and surrounding homes with help from its emergency coordinator Paul Peronard.  In Libby, as in any town where asbestos insulates a home or fertilizes a garden, a home becomes a hazard rather than a shelter.

Ultimately, Libby, Montana does document the connection between vermiculite-asbestos and Libby’s health concerns while also revealing the corporate cover-up and the heroic attempts by EPA on-sight emergency coordinator Peronard to implement cleanup efforts for the town. Yet the balanced approach taken by the filmmakers draws our sympathy away from the poisoned townspeople to Peronard’s own struggles to appease conflicted townspeople and encourages audiences to empathize with Governor Judith Martz’s reservations to support the extensive cleanup. By beginning the film’s historical background in the twentieth century instead of the 19th, the film also misses the chance to interrogate policies that allowed such mining to occur.

The good news is that Libby, Montana’s situation was dire enough to satisfy the EPA’s risk assessment study. The EPA began collecting samples in December 1999, collecting nearly 700 “from air, soil, dust and insulation at homes and businesses.” They released the first indoor air sample results in January 2000 to both property owners and the media and general public and located “areas in and near Libby that were likely to have high levels of contamination such as two former vermiculite processing facilities.” To determine the extent of the contamination, the EPA “also looked at general asbestos exposures in the community and at health effects seen in people who had little or no association with the vermiculite mine in Libby,” working

“closely with local, state and federal agencies to understand how people might come into contact with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and what can be done to prevent future exposures” (“Libby Site Background”).

After three years of research, Libby was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in October 2002, providing Libby with a Superfund Designation and the assurance of extensive cleanup. In September 2011, too, a Montana judge approved a $43 million settlement for the “more than one thousand asbestos victims in the town of Libby, Montana” (Mesothelioma News). The cleanup continues as of October 2011, with the addition of contaminated woodchips to exacerbate Libby’s problems (New York Daily News), problems that affect us all, according to Patricia A. Sullivan. Her study of Libby vermiculite workers revealed

“significant excess mortality from nonmalignant respiratory disease…even among workers with cumulative exposure” (584).

Her study’s conclusions, however, demonstrated how far-reaching Libby’s asbestos problem might be:

“Since vermiculite from the Libby mine was used to make loose-fill attic insulation that remains in millions of homes, these findings highlight the need for better understanding and control of exposures that currently occur when homeowners and construction renovation workers (including plumbers, cable installers, electricians, telephone repair personnel, and insulators) disturb loose-fill attic insulation made with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, Montana.” (584)

Since approximately 80 percent of all vermiculite was produced in Libby, Montana until its mine and factories closed in 1990, the possibility that insulation is made with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby is high and reinforces the need to consider the production content of a home as well as its location.

According to the film, 218 crosses were displayed in memory of the known Libby asbestos victims. Libby, Montana also shows some of the consequences that arose after the film’s context. By July 2004, for example, more than 1200 other Libby residents had been diagnosed with lung abnormalities.

Conclusion: from Blue Vinyl to environmental justice at home?

Films like Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana demonstrate the drive for a better home, a shelter and a place where environmental justice is the norm, and environmental racism is minimized. This would be a place where

“no population, especially the elderly and children, are forced to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the negative human health and environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental hazard.”

What is missing from these films, however, is a larger story connected to the underfunding of the whole Superfund site cleanup program. On a human level, both Mossville and Libby are tragedies, maybe even crimes, but given the numerous Superfund site contenders, and the underfunding of the whole program, perhaps under triage, sites such as the Hanford, Washington Nuclear Reservation or the Picher, Oklahoma lead mining eco-disaster documented in PBS’s The Creek Runs Red (2007) may in fact be more dangerous and warrant a higher priority.

Ultimately, however, Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana underpin well the search for a better home, one we all can take, but one that also makes transparent the injustices hidden that may lie behind vinyl production and home construction. By choosing to maintain a clear rhetorical position that is infused with an engaging personal narrative, Blue Vinyl more effectively advances efforts for an environmentally sound home than does Libby, Montana, yet the goal for both films’ journeys is a better home for us all, one based on the idea that “human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainability development and peace are interdependent and indivisible,” one that is “secure, healthy, and ecologically sound,” and one that is

“free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment” (Cifuentes and Frumkin 1-2). 

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