Asbestos Devastated Libby, Montana. Now COVID-19 Hangs In The Air.

Aug 26, 2020

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Frank Fahland has been slowly building his dream house near Libby, Mont., for the past 15 years. 

"It's an Amish log home with a beautiful stain on it and the best back deck you've ever seen in your whole life," he says, overlooking pine-forested foothills and an open meadow.

Ever since the pandemic ramped up in mid-March, Fahland, 61, has been spending most days up here – away from people. Like hundreds of other folks in Libby, he's vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 because his lungs are scarred from breathing in asbestos-laced dust from a nearby mine for decades. He struggles to climb a small hill near his house before reaching for an inhaler. 

"It feels like someone is standing on your chest," he says. "Or almost like someone stuffed a pillow down there in your lung." 

Fahland says he can manage the symptoms but he believes his lungs aren't strong enough to fight off the novel coronavirus. So he's staying away from town, he hasn't visited his son and granddaughter in months and he's even prepared for his own death.

"If it hadn't been for COVID my will would not be written," he says. "But it is now. It's filed in the courthouse and the whole goddamn thing is done. That gives you some idea of how seriously I take this."

A few miles away from Fahland's dream house, Miles Miller, a physician's assistant at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, a small ranch-style medical center in town, sees patients like Fahland every week. 

"Our patients having an underlying lung disease would make recovery from COVID-19 more difficult," he says. 

Miller has lived in Libby since 1990. That was the year the vermiculite mine that caused this public health disaster finally closed down. Before that, Miller says, the mine spewed asbestos-laden dust throughout Libby – constantly.

"During the heyday, I don't think you could shop for groceries in this town without breathing some of the dust," he says.

It can take decades for someone to develop health problems from breathing in that dust. The Center for Asbestos Related Disease estimates about one in ten residents in the Libby area are currently diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, which can be anything from scarred lungs to various cancers. But when it comes to the novel coronavirus, so far, the town has been somewhat spared. It's had under a hundred confirmed cases and only two deaths as of August 25, 2020. 

Miller chalks that up to the community taking the pandemic seriously from the beginning.

"Gallant efforts at testing, identifying, tracking and preventing are ultimately responsible for our current low numbers," he says. "Had we not been very stringent with that it could have been devastating."

The county public health officer has issued a mask mandate regardless of how many cases the county currently has – a more stringent rule than the statewide mask order. But for a few folks, the town's history with the mine and the government's initial inaction has made them wary of authority.

"They profiteered off our precious lives and souls," says Doug Shaw, 69, whose lungs are scarred from asbestos. 

He's lounging in a recliner at his mobile home on the outskirts of town. During a two-hour conversation he repeatedly rails against the state government and the mine's owner, W.R. Grace and Company, for covering up the contamination in Libby for decades.

"I do not like what they did to us and allowed to be done to us," he says.

He calls it murder. This distrust of authority has bled into his reaction to the pandemic. Shaw is uncertain whether COVID-19 is dangerous and he's frustrated by government restrictions on events and businesses. 

"It's nuts. Nobody has to live like this. We need to get back to work," he says.

That sentiment runs strong throughout northwest Montana. It's a conservative region with a libertarian streak and Libby's economy relies on summer visitors.

And it reveals a paradox. On one hand, local officials and the community have largely accepted public health guidelines. But on the other, the county is allowing big, public events such as a rodeo and an international chainsaw competition to occur. Frank Fahland says it's a tricky contradiction.

"We need people to come here and spend money and jolt the economy," he says. "Problem is, with that rodeo, there were faces in that crowd that have different license plates that came from different places that may have had issues."

Julie Kendall, a phlebotomist at a local hospital who was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease two months ago, echoes that sentiment. 

"These people that come to these events from out of town are going to our gas stations and our grocery stores," she says. "They could be exposing you right there."

Kendall is sitting on a picnic table near a railroad track where she was exposed to asbestos as a child. The area used to be home to a community swimming pool and children would play near piles of mine waste. She sees parallels between asbestos exposure and the novel coronavirus.

"It's unseen," she says. "You can be doing the most innocent thing and it could still get you."

But Kendall also believes those parallels have given folks like her a leading edge on dealing with this pandemic because they've been here before. 

"We're already afraid here," she says. "So it's kind of like one more shake of the dice. You can't live every day in fear. But here we do."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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