Federal Regulators Knew About Asbestos Tainted Wood Chips in Montana For Years Before Warning the Public

August 4, 2011

More than 400 people lost their lives and hundreds more became seriously ill as a result of exposure to asbestos-contaminated wood chips from an abandoned lumber mill in Libby, Montana. New revelations recently exposed by the Associated Press suggest that at least some of these tragedies could have been avoided. Reports show the Environmental Protection Agency knew the tainted woodchips were being widely sold by local residents yet the government officials took years s before putting a stop to the practice.

Asbestos is a highly toxic mineral fiber that easily becomes airborne and is known to cause fatal diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. According to Newsday.com, dangerous asbestos fibers were found in wood chips and bark up to eight miles from the W.R. Grace mine as early as 2007. Hundreds of local residents reportedly used the tainted wood scraps for landscaping purposes, and government officials shipped an estimated 15,000 tons of bark outside of the Libby area to be used as fuel.

In previous statements, federal regulators said they learned about the contaminated wood sales last fall. But further investigation by U.S. Senator Max Baucus revealed that the EPA actually learned about the sales as early as 2007, when samples taken from wood chip piles surrounding the mill site revealed the presence of dangerous asbestos fibers.
Our asbestos attorneys are troubled by the fact that government regulators knew about the potential health hazards of the asbestos- laced wood chips at least three years before they decided to halt sales. Hundreds of deaths and even more asbestos-related diseases resulted, and many more people may be at risk because it is still not known where all of the contaminated bark ended up.

The EPA acknowledged the extent of their delay in a July 14, 2011 letter sent to Sen. Baucus, promising to perform more test sampling in Libby and to conduct further toxicology assessments to assess the level of risk for asbestos cancer and other serious respiratory diseases. The agency admits that at least 1,200 to 1,400 residential and business properties in the Libby area still need to be cleaned up, a massive effort that will cost an estimated $370 million.

Unfortunately, even if safety measures are being taken now to reduce the public health risk of asbestos exposure, we know from working closely with asbestos victims that it may take anywhere from 30 to 50 years before the symptoms of an asbestos-illness begin to show. Those who came into contact with the contaminated wood products are at risk for developing mesothelioma, a devastating cancer that attacks the lining around the abdomen, lungs and heart. They are also at risk for other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer. People who worked at the now defunct timber mill may be most susceptible to serious harm, based on their level of exposure.

While companies such as the former Stimson Lumber mill profited from asbestos-contaminated products, victims and their families were robbed of their health and financial security. Asbestos-related illnesses require a substantial amount of medical costs and related expenses that can only potentially be recovered with the help of an experienced asbestos attorney.