Residents of Libby, Montana, are fighting for compensation and appropriate healthcare over the asbestos-related health disaster that is now recognised as one of the worst human-made environmental disasters in the US.
Libby was home to a vermiculite mine from 1919 to 1990. Despite the mine being closed for more than 30 years now, more than 400 people in the township have died from asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung diseases, with thousands more diagnosed.
The operator of the mine, W.R. Grace, filed for bankruptcy in 2001, after thousands of lawsuits were filed over asbestos contamination. Since then, the Montana Supreme court has ruled that several other companies outside of the mine were responsible for the contamination, including BNSF Railway.
BNSF, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, was ruled liable for spreading asbestos dust spread while transporting vermiculite.
BNSF is now going after the local health clinic, which was opened in 2000 to deal with soaring rates of lung disease. They are suing the Centre for Asbestos Related Disease in the country’s federal court.
The rail company has alleged that the clinic, which is still responsible for screening locals for lung disease, is defrauding Medicare and grant agencies. The company says the clinic has over-diagnosed asbestos-related diseases and has relied on X-Rays and CT scans.
“CARD knowingly billed the federal government millions of taxpayer dollars for medically unnecessary radiographic studies and interpretations that they routinely disregarded,” BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said in a statement.
CARD’s team study the ongoing health effects of amphibole asbestos, a rare form of asbestos. Lawyers for CARD see the lawsuit as a plot to damage the clinic’s credibility while limiting the railroad’s liability by questioning the legitimacy of the clinic’s diagnoses.
“It’s just not an exact science,” explained Bruce Alexander, an environmental epidemiologist at Colorado State University. There is debate amongst radiologists as to how to best interpret CT scans and X-Rays.
“There’s legitimate scientific debate about what the implications of these exposures are, but it’s pretty clear people in these communities were adversely affected,” Alexander said.