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Asbestos risk remains in some Libby homes

BILLINGS – A preliminary study of an asbestos-plagued Montana town indicates health dangers remain in some areas already addressed in a federal cleanup that, so far, has cost more than $370 million.

Tuesday’s release of a long-awaited draft toxicity study for the town of Libby comes more than a decade after the Environmental Protection Agency started its cleanup operation.

Health workers say more than 400 people have been killed over the last several decades in Libby, which is considered the nation’s deadliest Superfund site. Asbestos fibers released from a nearby W.R. Grace vermiculite mine once blanketed the town of about 3,000 people.

EPA officials said Tuesday’s study confirms Libby’s once-deadly ambient air is now safe.

Yet they conceded some homes already addressed by cleanup crews remain a risk and might need to be revisited. Officials suspect those areas have been re-contaminated by homeowners who inadvertently tracked in asbestos from areas not addressed by cleanup crews.

EPA assistant administrator Paul Anastas said the toxicity study was released early to keep residents “fully informed” in Libby and neighboring Troy. The agency has faced withering criticism from Montana officials for past missteps in Libby, including false declarations that areas were safe when in reality significant risks remained.

“This is a major step forward in establishing the science to improve the cleanup of asbestos in Libby and the protection of the families that live here,” Anastas said.

The study suggests the cancer risk from Libby’s asbestos is relatively similar to the dangers posed by other types of asbestos, EPA officials said.