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No End in Sight for Montana
Asbestos Clean-Up

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Ed. Note: Information on the progress being made by the EPA in cleaning up the severe problem of asbestos in the town of Libby, Montana, is being presented here as an update for members of the hearth industry who, as a group, where actively involved in improving the health of Libby residents.

It has been decades since W.R. Grace & Co. shuttered its mine north of the town of Libby, Montana, but the devastating impact of that operation continues to this day. Thousands of residents of nearby Troy and Libby who worked in the mine, or were exposed to asbestos as a result of their proximity to the mine or miners, have been sickened and died, and millions have been spent on cleaning up those towns.

Though news reports in the last few years have indicated that the clean-up process in town is wrapping up, the reality is that the EPA is simply moving on to the next phase of their efforts. In fact, the agency has just announced that the next area of focus is even larger and more widespread than they originally believed it to be.

In a statement released a few days ago, project manager Christina Progress announced that the next area of concentration – an area north of Libby referred to as Operable Unit 3 – will be enlarged from the original 35,000 acres targeted to 47,000 acres. This is because of concerns raised by a dust and bark sample conducted last year that showed much more hazardous material released by a controlled burn than originally thought.

The agency is particularly concerned about the possibility of wildfires occurring in the forested area, though they are also worried about asbestos contamination in the rivers that flow through the area where the mine once operated.

The W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine in Libby once produced 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, but it contained asbestos, and as a result employees and residents of the nearby towns suffered extremely high rates of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma. One out of every 10 town residents has died from these conditions, and the company was charged with complicity.

W.R. Grace has faced approximately 300,000 asbestos lawsuits, and was further charged with having tried to protect billions of dollars in assets from asbestos victims by transferring them to daughter companies. The EPA declared a public health emergency in Libby and the surrounding area, and established it as a Superfund site: nearly half a billion dollars has been spent on clean-up so far.

Looking at market fundamentals, the most important reason to be confident about the growth prospects for our industry is that the demographics for housing demand are so favorable.

For example, there are just over 25 million Americans ages 20 to 25. While most of these 20-somethings will seek to rent first, consumer surveys overwhelmingly indicate that they have the same aspirations as prior generations—marriage, children, and homeownership among them. And like those before them, millennials mostly wish to purchase a single-family home in the suburbs. Those analysts and pundits suggesting that today’s young adults have given up on homeownership and will mostly seek to live in downtown locations are, quite simply, wrong.

However, younger Gen Xers and millennials are achieving these traditional milestones later in life. And this is one of the reasons the housing recovery has lagged. But flat existing-home inventory, growing job creation and wages, historically low mortgage interest rates, and favorable demographics all point to a positive outlook for home building.

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