MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ A Montana judge has approved a $43 million settlement for more than a thousand asbestos victims who said state officials knew that dust from a mine was killing people but failed to intervene.

An estimated 400 people have been killed and 1,750 others were sickened by asbestos released from a W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine outside the mountain town of Libby. Lethal dust from the mine once blanketed the small community about 40 miles south of the Canadian border, and asbestos illnesses were still being diagnosed more than two decades after the mine was shuttered.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena approved the settlement award, which stemmed from lawsuits filed against the state 10 years ago. Sherlock had dismissed the victims' claims in 2002, a decision the state Supreme Court overturned.

Former Libby resident Mike Nelson, who has been diagnosed with asbestosis, said he signed up for the settlement two years ago looking for closure. After learning Friday that it had finally been approved, Nelson said, it meant little to him at this point, as his relatives continue to die and his lung problems get worse.

"I've lost my father, my mother, my stepmother and my father in law," said Nelson, who now lives in Washington state. "They're all dead. All from asbestos ... W.R. Grace was the one responsible, but right now, I hate my government. The state knew. (The money) isn't going to do anything for me."

Nelson recalled as a child playing in the silos of a W.R. Grace plant near his house, where gold-tinted dust from processed vermiculite "piled up like snow" and made it hard to breathe.

A federally-sponsored cleanup of Libby and the nearby town of Troy continues at a cost to date topping $370 million. Environmental Protection Agency officials have said it may be years before the job is finished.

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