$43-million settlement approved for asbestos victims in Libby, Mont.
On the outside, the town of 3,000 people along the Kootenai River is a picture postcard of why western Montana is one of the most gorgeous places in the country. Unseen, though, is how asbestos pollution from a former W.R. Grace & Co. mine has sickened more than 1,300 residents with a deadly lung disease, killing many of them and turning Libby into the deadliest Superfund site in the nation's history.
One of the first signs of good news, though, has come with court approval of a $43-million settlement with the state of Montana, which victims' lawyers argued had a duty to warn and protect Libby residents from dangers posed by the perilous asbestos dust.
Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on Friday approved the settlement in the 10-year-old series of about 200 lawsuits against the state. It calls for payments ranging from $500 to more than $50,000, according to the Associated Press and the Daily Inter Lake newspaper, which first reported the settlement.
Attorneys will receive about $14 million of the money. Distribution of the rest is likely to be delayed while authorities determine how much the federal government is first entitled to on behalf of those who received Medicare payments for medical treatment.
Other cases and potential settlements are still pending.
But few in Libby are celebrating the settlement. This is a town where victims of lung cancer and mesothelioma can often be seen pushing oxygen carts through the aisles of the grocery store and where many families have members among the 400 who have died of asbestos-related disease.
"I'll believe it when I see it. It's what they've been telling us all along, but it's ridiculous how long it's taking," Peggy Strand, who suffers from asbestos disease along with her husband, said in an interview Monday.
Strand's left lung is so scarred that she can't breathe if she tries to lie on her left side at night.
She and her husband each expect to receive about $20,000 from the settlement. But that is nothing, she said, compared to what they've suffered: Her father, Roy McMillan, a worker at the mine, brought home asbestos fibers on his clothing and sickened most of her family before dying himself.
Her brother died after being diagnosed with asbestosis, she said, while other siblings died before such diagnoses were made, and both her remaining sisters are sick.
"They're on oxygen 24/7, and they're younger than me," Strand said.
Already, the federal cleanup of Libby and neighboring Troy has cost more than $370 million.
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Gayla Benefield visits the graves of her parents, who both died slowly of lung problems. Her father worked at the Grace vermiculite plant in Libby, Mont., but her mother was self-employed. Now Benefield is sick. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times