Libby's new horizon 

With the EPA's exit strategy finally set, the City of Eagles looks to an uncertain but promising future

The idea first struck on a book club night in 2013. Kristin Smith called her friend Sarah Sorenson, curious whether she wanted a ride. Sorenson proceeded to recount her recent trip through western Montana that included a stop at the brewery in Philipsburg. Sorenson told Smith she was amazed by the vibrant atmosphere the craft beer joint seemed to generate in the town. If it worked in Philipsburg, why not take a whack at it in the Kootenai Valley?

"We knew there was great potential," recalls Smith, who was coming off a stint as planning director for Lincoln County at the time. "Obviously we saw a growing market across the state and could see what this type of business could do, particularly for small communities."

The duo made quick work of their plan, and 13 months later they opened the doors of downtown Libby's Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company. People began flocking to the taps almost immediately. Not to be punny, Smith says, but it was as if locals were "thirsty for this new experience." Nearly two years later Cabinet has gained the nickname "Libby's living room," a bustling gathering place housed in one of the town's oldest buildings. That last fact resonates particularly strongly with people around here, Smith adds. "People come in and talk about what used to be in this place a long time ago."

  • cover illustration by Martin Weitzman

For many small communities, the past serves as a powerful tether in changing times, even a past as checkered as Libby's. This town has weathered a relentless series of booms and busts, from logging to mining to the construction of Libby Dam, and come out the other end with its sense of pride and heritage intact. However, the latest challenge in the City of Eagles has many feeling fatigued and ready to move on from a bust that brought with it a reputation not easily overcome.

To much of the outside world, the name Libby is still synonymous with asbestos. Decades of vermiculite mining left the people here to deal with piles of the stuff, as well as the perpetual presence of the Environmental Protection Agency. It's a legacy of contamination and sickness that has fueled international headlines, lawsuits and health emergency declarations. Hundreds have died from asbestos-related disease. More are diagnosed each year. Over the past 15 years, the EPA has hauled away more than a million cubic yards of tainted soil and building material, a massive cleanup effort that has exceeded $540 million and left locals wondering if the agency will ever be done.

Now residents have an answer. On Feb. 8, the EPA officially released its long-awaited record of decision for the Libby Superfund site, revealing the feds will finally be pulling up stakes in just four more years. There's still plenty of work to be done in that time—about $64 million worth, by the EPA's estimation—but Smith feels the record of decision is a "milestone" for the community, one that was worth celebrating with a meeting at Cabinet Mountain Brewing shortly after the document's release.

As Libby celebrates, it's also looking forward. While the town prepares for the effects of the EPA's departure, it's also employing the help of Missoula-based marketing firm Partners Creative to craft a new civic image and message.

"It's our turn to carry the torch now," Smith says, "and get back into the vibrant little town we should be."

How Libby achieves that won't be based on some grand federal plan but rather on the strength and tenacity of the roughly 2,600 people living here. The real question is, are they ready to take the helm?

What's been done

Drive west into Libby on U.S. Highway 2 and one of the first buildings you'll see in the town proper is a drab-gray two-level house with a small stoop and a fenced-in backyard. Gayla Benefield grew up there. But cruising past, she points it out merely as an aside. She spends far more time talking about the former lumber mill site across the street, an area she describes as blighted and abandoned save for a gas station and a few corrugated buildings left behind by past companies. It's one of the many things Benefield says sticks in her craw. In her opinion, there should be a park there, some sort of lush green greeting that tells outsiders they're about to enter a town worth stopping in for a while.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY US EPA
  • photo courtesy US EPA

Benefield has waged her fair share of battles in Libby over the years. Throughout the 1990s she conducted an exhaustive investigation of W.R. Grace, convinced the mining company's activities were the source of the high rates of asbestos-related disease among locals. Her father, Perley Vatland, a worker at the vermiculite mine, died of asbestosis in 1974. Her mother, Margaret, came down with it, too, and spent years in and out of the hospital before her death in 1996. In 2001, Benefield discovered she also had scar tissue in her lungs. These tragedies, along with the gut-wrenching suspicion that her own children and grandchildren might one day succumb to similar illnesses, prompted her to file a lawsuit against W.R. Grace. Benefield's story has often invited comparisons to Erin Brockovich. Odds are Benefield, now in her early 70s, would dismiss such seeming flattery with an eye roll and a scratchy laugh.

"If I never do anything else in my life, I feel that I accomplished my goal," she says. "And the big goal was to provide the [infrastructure and cleanup] in Libby and make the people accountable for what they had done to my parents. That's the whole absolute bottom line right there."

Libby today is a different place than the Libby where Benefield grew up. The soda shop and ice skating rink that once flanked the downtown Dome Theater are gone. The building where she went to school now houses administrative offices. The big lumber companies left years ago and the mine is closed. Libby is still a working-class town and still suffers the same local political squabbles Benefield remembers from her younger years. But she doesn't measure change in what's disappeared. Rather, she focuses on what her fight has helped bring to the community. The nonprofit Center for Asbestos Related Diseases, or CARD Clinic, was housed in a doublewide trailer when Benefield first joined its board. It now sits in a stately building just a few blocks off the main drag amid a cluster of equally impressive health care facilities—all new, all state-of-the-art, all working to diagnose and treat the conditions that decades ago went undiagnosed and untreated.

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