Sunday, March 9, 2008

Two Free Public Screenings of Documentary Film, “Libby, Montana,” at the Fayette County Public Library on March 25 and 27

The Fayette County Public Library announces two free public screenings of the documentary “Libby, Montana,” directed by Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis. The dual screenings continue the library’s 2008 Spring Film Festival, a collaboration with P.O.V., PBS’ award-winning nonfiction film series. “Libby, Montana” will be shown at the library on Tuesday, March 25 at 6:30 p.m., and on Thursday, March 27 at 1:00 p.m., with support provided by the Friends of the Fayette County Public Library.

For the citizens of the town of Libby, mining vermiculite provided decades of good jobs. The mineral was first extracted and developed into the multi-use material, Zonolite, by a local mining engineer in 1919. In 1963, industrial giant W.R. Grace acquired the Zonolite Company, and the mining went into high gear, as did the marketing of Zonolite as a wonder material, especially for insulation. Yet within two years of acquiring the mine, Grace’s internal memos show the company discussing the mine dust’s extreme toxicity — information never given to employees.

In Libby, the mining jobs brought an inescapable dust that choked the men at work and, proving impossible to wash off, was tracked into every home in town. The citizens of Libby not only mined the material but also showcased its use, insulating their homes with it and laying down sports fields, ice rinks and other community surfaces with the mine’s materials. Mineworkers say they were told the dust was no more dangerous than field dust, and felt relieved they weren’t mining notoriously toxic asbestos. Even as respiratory problems in the town mounted, often misdiagnosed as heart or other unrelated ailments, the true scale of the health crisis, especially the degree to which it had crept into the lungs even of Libby’s children, remained hidden just below the surface.

State and federal inspections repeatedly cited the mine in the 1960s and 1970s for its toxic dust cloud and the inadequacy of the company’s response. The company produced an internal study in 1969 demonstrating how deaths from unspecified “lung disease” rose steadily with years of employment, topping out at an astounding 92 percent for 20-year employees. Still the company said nothing publicly. By the time the EPA began screening Libby residents in 2001, over 1,200 of those tested, or roughly one-quarter of the town’s population, were found to have lung abnormalities associated with asbestos exposure: 10 times the national average. Mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos, was at least 100 times the national average.

In examining the politics behind the cleanup, as well as behind Grace’s historic ability to disregard worker health, “Libby, Montana” raises its most troubling questions. How could Grace go on operating the mine for another 20 years after the environmental toxicity became public knowledge? How could state officials continue to cover for a company that declared bankruptcy to avoid liability claims as it allegedly spirited away billions of dollars? By what final cruel twist does the National Priorities Superfund designation that provides the only means to fund the cleanup become the very means by which Grace finally abandons the town to taxpayers?

The directors of “Libby, Montana” tell the story using archival footage, news reports and the words of a range of participants in Libby’s tragedy — from ex-miners and mine managers and their families to EPA field workers to the state’s governor, Judy Martz, and then-EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman.

The free local screenings of “Libby, Montana,” and the rest of the library’s Spring Film Festival, are made possible through a partnership with P.O.V. Now in its 21st season on PBS, P.O.V. is the first and longest-running series on television to feature the work of America’s most innovative documentary storytellers. For more information about P.O.V., visit the website at http://www.pbs.org/pov/.

The Fayette County Public Library is located behind the Fayette County administration complex in downtown Fayetteville, at the southwest corner of Highways #85 and #54. For additional information about “Libby, Montana,” and the 2008 Spring Film Festival, please contact the library at 770-461-8841 or visit online at http://www.fayettecountyga.gov/public_library.

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