BILLINGS – Montana’s congressional delegation is seeking assurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the government will not leave the asbestos-contaminated town of Libby before its cleanup is complete.
Health workers say at least 400 people have died in rural Libby from contamination caused by a now-closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.
The EPA in May finalized its cleanup strategy for the first two of eight contaminated areas, including a town park. Some Libby residents and local elected leaders fear the EPA is rushing to finish its work, leaving the town at risk.
U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg have asked the EPA to clarify its future plans for the 3,000-person town. In separate letters sent in recent weeks, the lawmakers prodded the EPA to complete a long-delayed study of Libby asbestos.
They also wanted the EPA’s pledge to return to areas already cleaned if the study shows the health danger is worse than previously thought.
More than a decade after the EPA arrived in Libby on the heels of news reports about widespread health problems, regulators still are uncertain just how toxic the asbestos is to humans. A risk assessment meant to answer that question is not expected to be finalized for another five years, according to correspondence between the agency and Baucus.
“In some ways we’re in the same spot we’ve been for years,” Baucus told EPA officials during a recent Senate subcommittee hearing.
A June report by the Government Accountability Office listed Libby as one of 75 Superfund sites across the United States with health risks that are considered unacceptable. For Libby, that public danger is expected to last through at least 2015.
Rehberg said last week that he shared the town’s frustrations over the pace of the cleanup.
“It’s taken longer than was anticipated,” Rehberg said. “Some of that is because it was a bigger problem than we expected. Some of it has been bureaucratic and we’re working our way through that.”
EPA officials acknowledge the health crisis in Libby has at times overwhelmed the government as the scope of contamination and number of victims has grown.
Last year, it became the first Superfund site ever declared as a public health emergency.
Spokesman Ted Linnert said that for residential areas, the agency will hold off on issuing a final cleanup document, known as a record of decision, until the risk assessment is completed. “That’s where the risk assessment is most critical,” he said.
Linnert added that the first two areas slated for cleanup would be reviewed within five years to make sure the agency’s actions were effective.
Asbestos-laced vermiculite was used as insulation in hundreds of Libby houses and businesses and tilled into backyard gardens. Decades of activity at the Grace mine produced so much dust that hazardous asbestos is now embedded in the barks of trees that cover the surrounding mountains.