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News >  Idaho

EPA asbestos cleanup effort spurs complaints in Libby

Staff writer

At one time, the Environmental Protection Agency was hailed as a kind of savior for Libby, Mont.

Although the agency had failed to act on information in the 1980s and ‘90s that Libby was contaminated with a dangerous form of asbestos, in late 1999 the agency swept in and started to clean up the worst of the contamination.

The cleanup activity had its detractors, but for the most part, Libby residents welcomed the federal government’s efforts to remove the dangerous tremolite asbestos fibers that threatened the health of the community. More than 200 Libby residents are said to have died as a result of the asbestos contamination.

Now, five years later, as the emergency cleanup phase morphs into the longer term status of a Superfund cleanup, some residents and asbestos victims have become disenchanted with the EPA and scope of the cleanup.

One has filed a complaint with the EPA’s Inspector General, and staff from the Inspector General’s office is expected to be in Missoula on Tuesday to gather information for a preliminary review of the complaint.

“It may be cleaner, but it’s not clean,” said Mike Crill, a former Libby resident who was exposed to tremolite asbestos as a worker for W.R. Grace, the international company that operated the vermiculite mine that was the source of most of the asbestos contamination in the area. “It may be safer, but it’s not safe.”

Crill blew the whistle on W.R. Grace in the early ‘90s, when it demolished its Zonolite Mine screening plant without providing proper protection to the demolition workers. Grace was fined $50,000. Later, when he saw a family move onto the former screening plant property, Crill called the EPA again. The EPA referred his complaint to the state of Montana, which found no apparent violations of the Clean Air Act.

Several W.R. Grace officials have been indicted for their part in failing to protect Libby from the Zonolite Mine operations. Some charges stem from the fact that Grace sold the screening plant without notifying the new owners of the hazardous materials there.

Now Crill has called the EPA Inspector General’s office – this time to complain about the EPA.

He’s got several concerns, but they mostly revolve around incomplete cleanup in the vicinity of the old screening plant, where he used to work, and how the government is spending its money in Libby. Only a fraction of the money is going directly to cleanup, he said.

Joining him when he makes his case to the Inspector General’s staff will be Gordon Sullivan, a Libby resident who serves as the technical adviser of the Libby Area Technical Advisory Group. For the last couple of years, Sullivan has worked with the group to translate technical EPA documents for public consumption, paid by an EPA grant.

But last Thursday, Sullivan said he was drafting his resignation letter.

“I don’t have any faith in the system. I deal with it every day,” he said. “Basically, it boils down to cost – this is a project that’s balanced on cost now. It’s not balanced on hazard.”

Sullivan and the Technical Advisory Group have issued a report on the Libby cleanup that concludes that the EPA isn’t going far enough to make sure the community is clean. Leaving vermiculite in the walls of homes that could later be breached and leaving other materials in place, even if they are not disturbed, doesn’t sit well with members of the group.

“To leave source material behind in aging structures and in lawns is neither protective or in keeping with the original intent of the cleanup process in Libby,” Sullivan wrote in the group’s report.

Jim Christiansen, EPA’s project manager for the Libby cleanup, takes exception to Crill and Sullivan’s criticisms.

“The basic question of how much has to go, how clean do you make it … is a very tough question,” Christiansen said. “The science is not clear.”

While the EPA decided to empty all attics of vermiculite, walls were problematic: “It’s almost impossible to take it all out,” Christiansen said.

Still, samples taken months after homes have been cleaned are encouraging, Christiansen said.

“We’ve taken hundreds, if not thousands of samples, and most of them are clean,” he said. “It shows that the risks we have left are small, not that they aren’t important, but that they don’t warrant the huge expenditure it would take” to completely eliminate them.

The agency is working on developing a long-term management program to assist homeowners in the future if they come across vermiculite on their property after the Superfund cleanup is complete.

As for some of the contaminated areas that remain near the old screening plant, Christiansen said those will be dealt with as part of the Superfund cleanup. Currently, the agency is still operating under emergency cleanup authority, and is tackling the most hazardous areas first, he said.

Finally, Christiansen defended his agency’s financing of the cleanup. Christiansen manages a roughly $18 million annual budget for cleanup in Libby. Between 170 and 200 homes will be cleaned this year, leaving about another 1,000 contaminated homes in the Libby area still to be cleaned. The average cost to clean each home is $30,000, but that doesn’t include the cost of sampling, operating the special asbestos landfill and the disposal site at the mine, engineers, oversight and infrastructure.

More than 100 people are working almost exclusively on the Libby cleanup, he said.

Gayla Benefield, whose parents both died from asbestosis caused by Libby’s vermiculite, has been involved in the effort to clean up Libby and bring W.R. Grace to justice for more than a decade. While she agrees with the conclusions of the Technical Advisory Group, she’s also sympathetic to the EPA’s position.

She thinks Crill’s complaint to the EPA’s Inspector General is a waste of time and money.

“If we had a responsible party … if we had Grace here, they would come in and they would hire contractors as per their specification,” she said. “This is something the community didn’t want.”

“Let’s get down to the bare bones and get the thing cleaned up,” she continued. “I think the EPA’s the only salvation we’ve got.”

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