copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Give me shelter: the ecology of the home in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana

by Robin L. Murray and Joseph Heumann

Although many documentaries explore the devastating sense of loss residents feel when their homes are lost or destroyed by everyday eco-disasters, few examine the environmental consequences of the building materials used to construct the home. Blue Vinyl (2002) and Libby, Montana (2004) move beyond lamenting eco-driven loss of the home place found in environmental documentaries from mountaintop removal films such as B. J. Gudmundsson’s Rise Up! West Virginia (2007) and Mountain Mourning (2008)[1] [open endnotes in new window] to Josh Fox’s anti-fracking expose, Gasland (2010), and unmask some of the environmental hazards of the home itself. Although their documentary approaches differ, both Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana reveal the toxic environmental hazards faced by workers constructing housing materials and the homeowners themselves, with Blue Vinyl focusing on the dangers of Polyvinyl Chloride, and Libby, Montana highlighting asbestos and its mineral source, vermiculite.

In the personal narrative-driven Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy (2002), co-director and writer Judith Helfand and co-director/cinematographer Daniel B. Gold become comic detectives in their attempt to find a viable solution to Helfand’s parents’ home repair dilemma:  Is it possible to replace rotting wood siding with “products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle” but still provide the economy, endurance, and good looks of cheap but toxic blue vinyl? After attempting to convince her parents to forego their new vinyl siding choice for a more environmentally friendly alternative (as long as it’s cheap and looks good), Helfand and Gold embark on an investigative journey that reveals both the dangers underpinning vinyl use and the challenge to find a viable, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative.

In Libby, Montana, directors Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis take a more traditional documentary approach to expose the health hazards asbestos has caused in Libby’s mines and factories from 1919 until their closure in 1990. Also structured like a mystery, this social documentary combines talking head and direct cinema approaches to illuminate the biggest case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history, resulting at last count in an estimated 1,500 cases of lung abnormalities. The film carefully documents the history of a town that moved from logging to mining vermiculite. Ninety-two percent of  people who worked for the mine more than twenty years died from lung disease. Most condemning is evidence that W. R. Grace & Company knew the danger of asbestos and did nothing. According to the film, despite overwhelming health problems and clear signs of criminal negligence, the EPA’s arrival in 1999 leads only to more wrangling, this time over whether or not Libby should be labeled a Superfund site.

Blue Vinyl provides a narrative of discovery in which Helfand and Gold reveal what the dangers PVC mean for not only her parents and other suburbanites keen on siding their homes with vinyl, but also for PVC chemical plant workers and home dwellers nearby.  Libby, Montana documents a mystery now solved but unresolved due to bureaucratic battles by EPA officials and corporate leaders over designating the town a Superfund site. In these eco-documentaries, multiple issues of home and homelessness are explored, revealing a plethora of environmental problems that, according to Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana,  especially, should be addressed no matter how difficult the task. The repercussions of doing nothing are too toxic for both human and nonhuman nature. Overlooking these eco-disasters may turn the everyday into catastrophe, these films assert, reinforcing the power of an environmental justice movement grounded in an equitable and humane vision of home.

Although the documentary strategies applied in Blue Vinyl are more compelling than those in Libby, Montana these films both effectively illustrate the complexity of environmental justice issues. Environmental injustice, lack of human rights, and, to a certain extent, environmental racism intersect in the literal study of homes in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana. For these films’ directors, it’s not just how you live and how you build your home, it’s where you live and what’s around you that contribute to the everyday eco-disasters associated with constructing and sustaining shelter.  

Blue Vinyl and environmental justice

Blue Vinyl highlights environmental justice and racism issues associated with both production of housing materials and the housing industry. Helfand introduces these issues by documenting the environmental effects of home construction after talking with her parents about new siding for their home. Their red wood is rotten and must be replaced. Helfand’s mother thinks her daughter overreacts to the family’s choice to replace their old wood siding with vinyl. But because Helfand had a rare form of cervical cancer caused by the DES her mother was given during pregnancy, worries about toxic chemicals used in vinyl’s PVC production are a priority for her now. Helfand’s poignant documentary and video diary, A Healthy Baby Girl (1997) illustrates the sense of loss she encountered after the cancer forced her to undergo a radical hysterectomy.  In her exploration of the ecology of home building, Helfand wonders, then, is vinyl siding safe? Blue Vinyl documents the years of detective work Helfand and her co-director Gold perform to discover and reveal their answers.

The film has been both heralded and slammed, primarily because of its rhetorical strategies. It won numerous awards and received laudable reviews  from many reviewers.[2] Other reviewers, however, highlighted weaknesses. For example, The City Paper suggests the film’s narrative may be “manufactured” or “at least jury-rigged.” Reviewer Christopher Null describes it as “extremely long,” and Bill Durodie of the conservative website “Culture Wars” calls Blue Vinyl “a case study in dumbing down.” For us, however, even though Helfand and Gold’s documentary journey to reveal the dangers of PVC production and use may be diluted by Helfand’s choice to personalize the issue in relation to her parents’ siding and her own health issues, it effectively illustrates and addresses environmental injustices of home construction.

Blue Vinyl effectively documents the disastrous consequences faced by residents and workers denied environmental justice. According to the EPA,

“Environmental justice ensures that 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.”

Environmental justice breaks down into three distinctive categories: procedural inequity, geographical inequity, and social inequity. These categories serve as the basis for the UN Draft Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, which state:

    1. “Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.
    2. All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. The right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.
    3. All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.” (Cifuentes and Frumkin 1-2)

By integrating interview data into a personal journey from a Long Island home to the source of its vinyl siding, Lake Charles, Louisiana, the film successfully illustrates the dangerous ramifications to the health and welfare of residents and workers when denied an ecologically sound and healthy environment and forced to endure environmental discrimination and the environmental racism associated with it.

As in A Healthy Baby Girl, filmmakers Helfand and Gold choose to explore and expose an environmental disaster by providing personal connections with its health hazards. In A Healthy Baby Girl, Helfand individualizes dangers of DES exposure by exploring her own responses to cervical cancer with a poignant video diary. Maintaining a serious tone aligns well with her sense of mourning after her own DES-related hysterectomy. As Gold explains in an interview with New England Film.com,

“in A Healthy Baby Girl, Judith shot nearly the whole thing herself, and it wouldn't have been appropriate for anyone else to shoot it. It was all about the intimacy... a family who has suffered toxic exposure.”

In Blue Vinyl, Helfand and Gold add a comic tone to a personal narrative approach that captures stories in two settings, Long Island and Lake Charles. More importantly, the film is effectively structured to transform personal narrative into powerful rhetoric. By interspersing talking heads, beautiful minimalist animation by Emily Hubley and Jeremy Dickey, and inter-titles with the stories narrated in its two distinct settings, the film argues vehemently against the production and use of PVC, the source of vinyl siding.  Ultimately, the film strategically draws on arguments used to convince Helfand’s own parents to discard their vinyl siding for an environmentally sound alternative to prove the environmental dangers of PVC for us all.

Although the film opens with a title card about the ubiquitous use of vinyl siding, it is the story of Helfand’s parents’ need to replace their siding that captures attention. Helfand and Gold adeptly connect Helfand’s parents’ decision to replace their rotten wood siding with vinyl with the everyday ecodisaster associated with its production. When Helfand protests the change of siding, for example, her parents suggest she video the wood to highlight its decay, providing a catalyst for the narrative documentary that follows. Helfand’s personal story becomes less intimate too than in A Healthy Baby Girl, “free[ing] her up to be more of a character and g[iving] her the opportunity to do something more visually,” according to Gold.  Helfand’s role injects personality into the film. By appearing as both a narrator and a character in the film, Helfand attempts to connect emotionally and intellectually with the audience, so they too become part of her journey.  

 Some may see Helfand and Gold’s approach as a weakness because it promotes a limited perspective with no attempt for balance and, at times, a seemingly “manufactured” narrative, a weakness that prompted Michael Moore to rename his feature, Roger and Me (1989) a movie instead of a documentary (Aufderheide 4). For us, however, their approach strengthens their arguments by making the audience members of the Helfand family. As Aufderheide asserts, “Helfand becomes a representative of the public—people who need inexpensive siding and also suffer the health consequences of using it” (8), but this representation also allows audiences to identify with the film’s complex issues and connect with its anti-dioxin rhetoric.

The first level of environmental injustice occurs at her parents’ house when the siding installer removing the rotting wood tells Helfand that vinyl will only emit dioxins and other toxic chemicals if burned in a fire. Later we learn at least one of these fires prompted the vinyl companies to form a vinyl organization “to protect and promote vinyl” or, according to Helfand and Gold, for damage control after fires in the 1970s and 80s culminated in a huge conflagration at the MGM Grand Hotel where smoke and toxic fumes fed by PVC piping, wallpaper, and plastic mirrors contributed to the majority of the 87 fatalities and 700 injuries. Greenpeace calls PVC the poison plastic because it causes permanent respiratory disease when burned, producing dioxins so powerful that people die from inhaling its gases before the flames reach them.

Although the toxicity of the contents of Helfand’s parents’ vinyl siding is an everyday ecodisaster, the production process for the PVC vinyl contains highlights a second level of environmental injustice and a second set of victims: those who work in and live in proximity to PVC plants. To uncover the truth about vinyl, the now detective Helfand goes to the source of vinyl siding—St. Charles, Louisiana, where PVC, the main ingredient in the vinyl, is produced in enormous chemical plants that dominate Mardis Gras celebrants, recreational lakes, and fields where cattle graze. Near the factory, the owner of a local restaurant, the Pitt Grill, and workers talk about what causes cancer. It’s the smoke in the air, they explain, broaching at least one violation of environmental justice and human rights. Their environment is clearly not “secure, healthy, and ecologically sound.” But the plant managers argue that hazards near PVC plants may be a relatively good thing because the company takes care of toxic spills fast.

As evidence of the blatant environmental injustices caused by the plant, however, several area residents note the repercussions of living near this toxic plant. In the town of Mossville, for example, African American resident Dianne Prince has cancer and believes she received it from the factory.  She asks, is safety a big issue in Lake Charles? At Community Risk Management meetings, other residents discuss the hazards of raw materials from the factories. Residents near the factory are unable to breathe. Trees are brown on the side facing the plant, green on the other. But factory owners only refer Helfand to the Vinyl Institute website where scrolling graphics extoll the uses of vinyl and its “green” recyclable footprint. Vinyl is everywhere, “making a difference every day,” according to the website. And at a conference devoted to alternatives to PVC, the Vinyl Institute was there to exalt the benefits of their product.  Other evidence Helfand uncovers tells a different story:

“They say they’re not hurting the environment, but 56% of the product is chlorine. Is there any proof that it’s safe?“

To substantiate the flagrant environmental injustices occurring for both workers and residents living in vinyl sided homes, most studies indicate that any benefits of PVC are outweighed by their risks. Helfand calls PVC “the Watergate of molecules,” since it is more dangerous than any other plastic. A single PVC fire can cause disease and death. But the danger doesn’t stop there.  Dioxin is produced at both ends of the PVC life cycle, so PVC and its vinyl output is not easily recycled. PVC ends up in landfills causing more disease and death. According to Helfand, the damage caused by PVC is similar to what DES did to her. All evidence demonstrates that dioxin is an unwanted contaminant caused by PVC, a toxic waste that is not degraded by humans or the environment. If dioxin is getting in the atmosphere, it’s getting in the food chain and building up in our bodies, Helfand explains, highlighting the breadth of environmental injustices associated with use of PVC.

The environmental injustice associated with PVC production, use, and disposal extends to human rights issues when Attorney William (Billy) B. Baggett, Jr. reinforces Helfand’s claims. As a lawyer, he can legally film areas where exposed workers have been, but he is only allowed one plant visit. When he enters the factory, he uses five cameras on a handheld platform to get a 360-degree view, hoping to show where workers he is representing might have been exposed to polyvinyl chloride. To augment Baggett’s evidence, Helfand and her crew provide examples of workers afflicted with cancer and other diseases due to PVC exposure. One afflicted worker’s wife holds a hand-written note on a bill that proves the company’s culpability:  “Exceeds short-term exposure. Do not include on wire to Houston,” the note explains, a message whited out on the versions Baggett receives from the company.  This blatant omission provides proof and lays the groundwork for conspiracy allegations against all PVC manufacturers, with Baggett, the lawyer, leading the charge.

This omission serves as strong evidence of human rights violation, as criminal activity that puts people who work in or live near the factory or live in vinyl-sided homes at risk. The industry’s knowledge of the negative effects of PVC exposure is confirmed in the documents Baggett and his clients find, including internal industry documents from Venice, Italy to all parts of the United States warning about the dangers of PVC toxins. According to Blue Vinyl, the European Vinyl industry researched PVC repercussions in 1972 and discovered that low doses of vinyl chloride caused cancer in laboratory mice, even in amounts that were less than the legal levels to which workers were exposed. None of this was revealed to the public, however, because a secrecy agreement was signed in Europe, and American companies agreed to it.

Ailing or deceased employees in Venice and Lake Charles and residents in Lake Charles and Mossville, Louisiana highlight the human costs of such a violation or rights and environmental justice. To prove that PVC causes cancer and that residents are breathing PVC too, testing buckets are created to measure toxic exposures and warn residents in Lake Charles. When tested, the air was found to be full of chloride and other chemicals, and those toxins also contaminated nearby water sources.

The most extreme environmental consequence of PVC and dioxin revealed by the film, however, transforms environmental injustice into environmental racism, when residents of Mossville, a predominantly African American community in the region, are forced to leave because PVC toxins from area factories have contaminated their water. As further evidence of blatant environmental injustice and racism, these residents are not only left without a community but also without recourse for future health issues. In order to sell their homes at low prices, the PVC companies required all residents sign an agreement that they would not file suit against the company if they developed health problems caused by the contamination. Clearly, these residents have lost their right to a secure, healthy, and ecologically sound environment.

Although choosing a more environmentally sound product will not solve industry-wide problems, to at least minimize one aspect of environmental justice, the negative environmental consequences of home construction, Helfand looks for eco-friendly siding alternatives for her parents’ house. Despite setbacks, including struggling with the dilemma of Habitat for Humanity’s vinyl homes being funded by the Vinyl Institute and Helfand’s ineffective programmed meeting with the Vinyl Institute, Helfand discovers reclaimed wood as an alternative for the vinyl that also proves aesthetically pleasing to her parents. Since it costs a small fortune, however, she misses her goal to find an economically feasible alternative and, ironically pays for the new siding herself with money from a DES settlement, her “uterus money,” as she calls it.

Blue Vinyl provides a clear case that vinyl siding is hazardous to human and nonhuman nature but ends with an ambiguous view of alternatives too expensive for Helfand’s family or Habitat for Humanity homes. Yet it also broaches some wider-reaching solutions to the environmental hazards of PVC, condemning vinyl companies for their knowing endangerment of their employees and of residents near their plants. Blue Vinyl addresses environmental justice issues on both an individual and universal level. Helfand’s film unearths inequities related to geography and racial and class bias, illustrating the extent to which Lake Charles and Mossville, Louisiana, and Venice, Italy, have become “sacrifice zones” in which toxins are tolerated because residents and factory workers lack power. Helfand and Baggett help provide them with a voice in both Helfand’s documentary film and the court cases Baggett leads.

PVC, vinyl, and industrial ecology

The dangers of PVC have been widely documented in research reports, but so have studies that demonstrate the viability of safer and affordable alternatives. According to David T. Allen,

“billions of pounds of vinyl chloride are produced annually.”

Yet, in their Tufts University study, Frank Ackerman and Rachel Massey effectively document the hazards of PVC and vinyl over its life cycle, but they also note the availability of viable and safe alternatives for PVC products, including wood shingles or clapboard, fiber cement, and simulated stucco. They also refute claims that vinyl is “maintenance free,” arguing that fiber cement is “more durable than vinyl” and “does not warp or burn.” Although Helfand and Gold conclude that environmentally sound alternatives are available but costly, Ackerman and Massey disagree, challenging “economic arguments for continued use of PVC” and asserting that alternatives to PVC are not only viable but also economical. According to their report, “academic studies have shown that the costs of environmental protection are routinely overestimated in advance, and decline rapidly after implementation.”

Ackerman and Massey’s results are reinforced by the research conclusions of both G.K. Al-Sharrah, et al and David Goldsmith, engineers who highlight the need to insert environmental objectives in industry analyses that “represent sustainability giving good results in selecting environmentally friendly processes and at the same time profitable” outcomes (1). Goldsmith, on the other hand, argues against “an anthropocentric model of nature as a supplier of resources” and instead asserts “that it would be beneficial to critically examine the ethical basis for sustainable built environments. These studies demonstrate the viability of an environmentally sound approach to PVC and other chemical production.

Despite these studies, PVC production and consumption continue at an astronomical pace. In fact, in 2011, nine years after the release of Blue Vinyl, Mossville, Louisiana, the predominately African American community right next door to Lake Charles, lost its case with the EPA to establish the community and its PVC plants as a Superfund Site. The EPA Superfund Strategy Recommendation on May 3, 2011 explained away both water and soil contamination as “within the range of the background for the area” or “naturally occurring.” With these justifications, the site score fell below the required 28.5. For us, however, this oversight implicates the EPA in the environmental injustice and racism suffered by the residents of Mossville, as well as the residents of Lake Charles and the thousands of PVC plant workers in the region, issues addressed with strong emotional appeal in Blue Vinyl.

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.

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. 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. 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]

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.

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). 


1. Other anti-Mountaintop removal films include the following:

2. It earned The Best Environmental Feature Film award for the Activist Film Festival in Los Angeles, The Documentary Award For Excellence in Cinematography at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and First Prize for Best Documentary at the 2002 Bermuda International Film Festival. It was also nominated for two Emmy Awards: Best Documentary and Best Research. The film also received laudable reviews from The Philadelphia City Paper and Festival Reviewer Tim Stopper.

3. In May 2012, however, a federal jury in Montana acquitted W.R. Grace and Company and three of its former executives of knowingly exposing mine workers and residents of Libby, Montana, to asbestos poisoning and then covering up their actions.


Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy. Dir. Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand. Stars. William Baggett. Docurama Films, 2002. DVD.

The Creek Runs Red. Dir. Bradley Beesley, Julianna Brannum. PBS Independent Lens, 2007. TV.

Libby, Montana. Dir. Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis. High Plains Films, 2004. DVD.

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Blue Vinyl Review.” Philadelphia City Paper.

2 May 2002. Web. 14 Oct 2011.

Bullard, Robert D. “Waste and Racism: A Stacked Deck?” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. Spring 1993. Print.

Cifuentes, Enrique and Frumkin, Howard. “Environmental Injustice: Case Studies from the South.” Environmental Research Letters. 2 (2007): 1-9. Print.

Durodie, Bill. “Blue Vinyl Review.” Culture Wars.

Jan 2003. Web. 8 Oct 2011.

“Environmental Justice Definition.” The Environmental Protection Agency.

26 Oct 2011. Web. 26 Oct 2011.

Goldsmith, David and Ries, Robert. “Biocentric Development Ethics.” Smart and Sustainable-built Environments.

18 Jun 2009. Web. 22 Oct 2011.

“Judge Approved $43 Million Settlement for People of Libby, Montana.” Mesothelioma News.

20 Sep 2011. Web. 22 Oct 2011.

“Libby Site Background.” www.epa.gov. 2009. Web. 22 Oct 2011.

“Louisiana.” Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

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