If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to declare a public health emergency in Libby, Mont., sounds familiar, it’s because the feds were seemingly on the verge of doing that in 2002, before pulling back and settling on a Superfund designation.
It’s too bad it took seven more years to do the right thing.
Inaction and delays have been the hallmark of a tragedy that has claimed the lives of more than 200 people, with more to come. One in eight Libby townspeople has contracted lung disease from vermiculite, a powdery mineral with fibers from deadly asbestos that for decades was extracted from a nearby mine.
Many Libby residents traveled to Spokane to get the bad news from doctors.
W.R. Grace, which ran the mine for years, took too long to inform its workers of the potential dangers, so employees tracked the dangerous dust into their homes and exposed their families. Grace has paid millions for medical care, but that source of revenue is drying up.
For reasons that have never been fully explained, the EPA failed to act when it became aware of the potential hazard.
The EPA’s declaration Wednesday frees up more public funds to cover medical expenses of the afflicted. It also triggers a more aggressive course for household cleanups.
Because of the slow-developing nature of asbestosis, the need will remain for years to come. Younger people are being diagnosed. The chances of a Libby resident contracting mesothelioma, a relatively rare form of lung cancer, are 100 times greater than the national average.
New leadership at the EPA has brought a new commitment to cleaning up the town and giving medical care to those afflicted. To reflect the seriousness of the decision, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius teamed up to make the announcement.
This is the first time the EPA has declared a public health emergency, but worries that Libby could set a burdensome financial precedent are overblown. As Jackson said, Libby’s circumstances are unique. The bar has been set high.
The declaration makes Libby the top priority for cleanup and medical aid, meaning that it should be funded first. A $6 million health care grant is expected to be finalized in August. If the feds have funding challenges in the future, it should be other projects that suffer cuts.
No amount of money can make up for the slow, suffocating deaths, but the feds have finally declared their intention to do their best from this day forward.
It’s long overdue.