Relief for Asbestos Mining Town Buried in Health Care Bill

Michelle Chen

The people of the mining community of Libby, Montana have been struggling to breathe for decades. Last week, the Senate health care bill offered them a sigh of relief, but like everything else in the legislation, it was clouded with controversy.

A provision buried in the mammoth legislation would enhance access to Medicare for residents who were exposed to environmental health hazards recognized as a public health emergency in a declaration issued by the federal government on June 17.” That elliptical language is congress-speak for a very targeted earmark: on June 17, the Obama administration announced an assistance package for Libby residents who have endured decades of heavy asbestos contamination from local vermiculite mining operations.

The EPA declared that the exposure to asbestos-laden dust from the Libby mine posed an unacceptable health risk, leaving the community extremely vulnerable to cancer and asbestos-related lung disease,

This recognition of Libby’s plight was bittersweet, though, as it came in the wake of a legal victory for the company behind the Libby disaster, W. R. Grace. A stunning acquittal in May ended a drawn-out court battle over whether the firm had knowingly exposed workers and community members to asbestos. Victims and federal prosecutors had long accused the company of deliberately perpetuating the toxic scourge, sickening and killing hundreds. Though W. R. Grace has kicked in some money for a Superfund cleanup, the case remains a tragic emblem for workers across the country who struggle with occupational health threats and the corporate greed that underwrites it.

And now the debate over Libby’s sick lungs has come full circle to Washington, where the monstrosity of a bill has been assailed from all sides for giving away too much to industry interests, giving too little to the uninsured, and failing to rein in soaring medical costs. One giveaway” that has drawn disproportionate attention is the line item for Libby asbestos victims – one of the first bits of pork” to be smacked down in the mainstream media.

The Helena Independent Record took an ambivalent view of the way the deal was orchestrated:

Sen. Max Baucus, D‑Mont., inserted language in a package of midnight amendments that grants Libby residents access to Medicare benefits. Baucus did not advertise the change, and it takes a close read of the bill to find the section, which doesn’t even refer to Libby by name.

While we applaud Baucus for continually coming to the aid of Libby residents, which he has done over the years, this is one prime example of how the hurried process to finalize the sweeping legislation to remake the U.S. health care system and extend coverage to some 30 million Americans is inherently flawed.

But Amy Linn at New West says the pork” in question is a pretty lean cut:

Inserting pet projects into complex bills is business-as-usual for Congress, which all-too-often funnels money to pork-barrel schemes like the infamously unnecessary bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

But it’s not always a boondoggle when lawmakers seek special considerations. Sometimes, it’s a blessing.

Sure, it may seem a little unsavory that a key Senator in the reform effort, Max Baucus of Montana, slipped a benefit for constituents into a massive piece of legislation, presumably because it was the simplest way to get the measure through Congress. It’s also disturbing that the government has been forced to absorb so much of the cost of dealing with the contamination, especially after W. R. Grace escaped legal punishment for what many deem a horrendous environmental crime.

But the backstory behind this special interest” is that the suffering in one Montana community is symbolic of the broader health crisis afflicting the nation. Beyond the question of the insurance crisis — which the bill purports to only partially resolve — public health disasters like Libby’s plague countless American communities every day. From widespread asthma in polluted urban neighborhoods, to pesticide-plagued migrant farmworkers, to chemical poisoning at a Texas oil refinery, the working poor are riddled with slow-burning epidemics. Yet the convoluted health care debate tends to dwell on antiseptic insurance statistics rather than the problems that disproportionately hurt the poor and people of color. Improving the nation’s public clinic system, expanding care to underserved communities, and ramping up enforcement of environmental and occupational safety and health protections, are basic challenges, which are rooted not only in the health system but a range of fraught policy arenas.

Those challenges are proving to be far too complex for legislators to take on, since they’re so politically and financially embedded in the status quo.
The extra aid for Libby is an overdue relief measure for victims of the mining industry. But as the Independent Record noted, it’s also a symptom of how perverted the health care debate has become; what was supposed to be a comprehensive reform effort has morphed into a Gordian knot that jumbles meaningful public assistance together with corporate lard.

Ultimately, Congress is responsible for letting the crisis escalate to the point that piecemeal emergency aid and corporate handouts eclipse the long-term vision for health care. The mine workers and their families at Libby don’t deserve to be treated as whipping posts again. After struggling for restorative justice for years, and still saddled with permanent scars, you could say they’ve suffered quite enough.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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