Justice in the face of environmental disasters

Jan 7, 2013

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Libby, Mont., is a rural working-class town situated in the northwest corner of the state. For several decades, workers and residents were unaware they were being exposed to highly toxic asbestos associated with nearby vermiculite mining and milling operations.

The exposure was so intense that in 2002, Libby was declared a Superfund site, the federal government’s program that works to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

Since 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency has cleaned up the major asbestos source areas around the community. Many private properties in the Libby area are still in the midst of the community-wide cleanup process.

 While exposure continues to challenge residents with a complex array of health problems, Libby also is a place where social work and environmental justice are making a difference. For social worker Tanis Hernandez, helping people on the front line of recovery is one way to right the wrongs done to generations of people living with the consequences of asbestos exposure.

Hernandez is the administrative director for the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, or CARD, based in Libby. It is a nonprofit clinic governed by a volunteer community board. Its staff provides health care, outreach and research to benefit all people impacted by the area’s asbestos exposure.

“Doing what is right for individuals, families and the community is the most rewarding thing about this job,” Hernandez said. “When I go home at night I know I gave it everything I had to make things right. The other most valuable element of CARD is the sense of team and knowing that when the going gets tough or the challenges feel overwhelming, you have your friends and teammates to pick you up to continue the forward momentum.”

Hernandez joined CARD in 2002 as an outreach coordinator and provided direct services to individuals and families dealing with the multifaceted psychological and social needs of coping with the exposure.

“I always wanted to be a social worker in a health care setting, and thus focused my social work education on health and mental health issues,” Hernandez said.

From the January 2013 NASW News. NASW members click here for the full story.

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