With over 1500 people diagnosed and more than 200 already dead from the dangerousÂ lung-disease asbestosis, members of the Libby community have paid a heavy toll for the vermiculite-rich mountains discovered near their rural city in Montana.Â As oneÂ Libbyite expresses in an interview included in the film:Â ”If you couldn’t read this in black and white, you couldn’t believe it.”
Beginning in 1919,Â a vast reserve of vermiculite (discovered in 1881)Â was mined by the Zonolite Company, before being purchased in 1963 by W.R. Grace & Company and used untilÂ the mine’s closure in 1990. What directors Doug Hawes-DavisÂ and Drury Gunn Carr seek to uncover in this exploratory documentary,Â are the reasons W.R. Grace & Company chose not to reveal to the public what they knewÂ as early asÂ 1956: that vermiculite dust is a toxic substance that causes asbestosis.
Featuring a large amount of archival footage and interviews with local residents, mine workers, and Paul Peronard, the man in charge of the EPA cleanup of Libby, the directors leave no stone unturned as they slowly portray the shocking story of Libby, Montana. Beginning with a brief history of the logging town, through the discovery of the vermiculite reserves and the prosperity theÂ people enjoyed as a mining town, and ending withÂ thorough coverage of theÂ painful consequencesÂ community members suffered due to breathing air laden with vermiculite dust, Libby, Montana is a documentary that, though fact-filled and sometimes slow, works as a moving emotional portrayal of hard-working people suffering at the hands of big business.
Almost two hours in length,Â the film staysÂ engagingÂ from beginning to end, though it does loseÂ a little bit of steam in the middle as it seeks to switch gears from presenting past information and events to covering the EPAs present-day efforts to get the town cleaned up with federal funds. Each half of the story is equally relevant, but the transition is not entirely smooth. EPA agent Paul Peronard serves as a bit of a central character for the film’s second half, discussing the complicated process of navigating Federal beuracracy, while still trying to get things done right.
Though other documentaries have covered corporate greed in detail (see The Corporation), the damning evidence presented against W.R. Grace & Company is enough to make even the heartiest capitalist grimace in disgust. The true heart of the film, though,Â lies in the community of Libby. Watching these people stand up and fight for answers is as inspiring as the story itself is depressing. This documentary deserves more exposure than it has received, and viewers are sure to be moved by this cautionary tale of the American Dream gone terribly wrong.
Zach’s Rating: B+
Perfect For: The conscientious viewer looking for a documentary involving an unbelievable cover-up
Stay Away if: You believe the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind”