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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Once again, Libby needs explanation from EPA

This can’t be happening again.

Twelve years after the feds arrived on the scene of an environmental catastrophe in Libby, Mont., new fears are circulating about asbestos dangers.

Giant piles of bark and wood chips on the edge of town have been contaminated with unknown levels of the deadly dust from a vermiculite mine shut down in 1990.

The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has known about the contamination for at least three years but did nothing until AP began investigating in March. Meanwhile, residents have hauled away an estimated 1,000 tons of the stuff for landscaping at local schools, parks, cemeteries and private yards. About 15,000 tons were sold and hauled elsewhere.

What is the potential danger to human health? The EPA cannot actually say, but officials should have quarantined the piles as they worked on an answer. In 2007, the agency found deadly fibers in four of the 20 samples it tested.

In a classic example of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped, the EPA is now working on guidelines for people who handle the bark and wood chips.

If Libby residents feel a sickening sense of history repeating itself, who can blame them?

Along with W.R. Grace, which owned the vermiculite mine, the EPA had long known about the dangers the material posed to workers. But for reasons that have never been fully explained, that information was shelved by federal bureaucrats.

It wasn’t until the media began investigating and publicizing the extent of the damage to workers and their families that the agency swung into action. An estimated 400 people have died the slow, smothering death caused by asbestosis; another 1,750 people have been sickened. Even so, the feds have been slow to find a response that matches the magnitude of the problem.

In 2002, EPA officials were on the verge of declaring a public health emergency that would have widened the cleanup effort and released more funds for medical expenses. But after meeting with the White House, the agency backed off and took a cheaper, more limited approach.

It was seven more years before an emergency was finally declared.

In 2006, an inspector general’s report noted that the EPA had no way to determine whether cleanup was sufficiently reducing risk.

Now, townspeople have learned that those big piles of bark and wood chips pose possible new dangers.

It’s difficult to understand how this indifference keeps occurring, but the residents of Libby deserve answers, action and accountability.

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