“Either this is the most horrific story I’ve ever heard, or these people
are completely crazy.” Thus begins Libby, Montana, an incisive and unrelenting portrayal of a
small northern mining town’s codependent and ultimately tragic 40-year relationship with the
company that sustained it.
W.R. Grace made millions from the local vermiculite mine, producing
fireproof house insulation among other products. What you learn early in the film is what town residents
didn’t discover until it was too late—that the vermiculite mined at Libby contains asbestos.
The toxic dust affected not only the men who worked at W.R. Grace, but the wives who washed their contaminated
clothing and the children who hugged their fathers’ dust-covered legs at the end of the workday.
You also learn that asbestos-laced insulation from W.R. Grace’s Libby operation can be found in
as many as 35 million American homes.
As with other hard-hitting High Plains Films documentaries, Libby,
Montana employs no voice-over narration. Instead, the story emerges through the voices of its
characters, including the EPA’s heroic, if egotistical, front-line cleanup man, Paul Peronard,
and the asbestosis victims who tell their stories, punctuated by coughs and gasps.
Equally powerful, and strangely moving, is the footage of W.R. Grace
mine manager Earl Lovick giving—or, rather, resisting—testimony in a civil trial
regarding his and his company’s responsibility for the sickness and death of hundreds of employees.
In his 70s at the time of the testimony, Lovick appears defiant yet oddly unmoored, a man faced with
the awful truth of his complicity. He himself was suffering from asbestosis when he died in 1999.