- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - The state of Montana has reached settlements totaling $25 million with more than 1,000 victims of asbestos-related disease over claims that health officials failed to bring attention to the hazards of a contaminated mine.

The Flathead Beacon reported (https://bit.ly/2jeVgoN ) that the settlements stem from nearly 100 lawsuits brought against the state for failing to protect residents in the northwestern Montana town of Libby.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands sickened by asbestos exposure from Libby’s now-shuttered W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine, which operated for decades just outside of town.

A different set of more than 1,000 plaintiffs reached a $43 million settlement with the state in 2011. Asbestos-related disease can have a decadeslong latency period before lung problems and other symptoms appear.

The plaintiffs in the latest settlements had not been diagnosed when the earlier deal was reached, Tom Lewis, a Great Falls lawyer for the plaintiffs, told The Associated Press.

They’ll receive payments ranging from $10,500 up to $60,000 for more severe cases, said Dale Cockrell, a Kalispell attorney who represented the state in settlement negotiations.

Since an initial deal was reached in June, 30 to 40 additional people have filed similar claims about health problems from asbestos exposure. Those claims still are being reviewed and there’s been no decision yet on how the state will handle them, Cockrell said.

Separate lawsuits from victims are pending against BNSF Railway, which transported asbestos-containing vermiculite from the mine to processing sites across the country, and International Paper, the current owner of a lumber mill in Libby where vermiculite was stored.

Wednesday’s settlement marks the end of lengthy negotiations between victims and the state. It resolves hundreds of claims against the state on behalf of miners, their family members and members of the community.

Attorneys with a Kalispell law firm representing 826 claimants and Lewis’ firm representing more than 200 reached separate agreements with the state, resolving the individual lawsuits.

The Libby mine closed in 1999 and nearly $600 million has been spent on a cleanup program for the Montana community. The Environmental Protection Agency has investigated or cleaned more than 7,100 properties in and near Libby and plans to finish another 700 properties before completion.

W.R. Grace agreed in a 2008 settlement to pay the EPA $250 million for cleanup work.

Health officials have estimated that as many as 400 people have died and almost 3,000 have been sickened from exposure in Libby and the surrounding area.

The Montana Supreme Court overturned lower court decisions in 2004, ruling that the state should have warned miners of the dangers first identified by officials in the 1950s.

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Information from: Flathead Beacon, https://www.flatheadbeacon.com

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