WASHINGTON (AP) – Montana Sen. Max Baucus threatened Monday to subpoena the Environmental Protection Agency over why asbestos poisoning in Libby was never declared a public health emergency.
Baucus has requested five-year-old documents from the agency detailing deliberations over whether it would declare such an emergency. Baucus said such a declaration would have lead to more extensive cleanup and health protections for the town, which is home to the now-closed W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.
In a speech during a visit to Libby on Monday, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said he would get the documents to Baucus by Aug. 31.
The vermiculite, used in a variety of household products, contained tremolite asbestos, which was released into the air and carried home on miners’ clothing. The asbestos is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people.
The EPA, which has declared the area a Superfund site, first arrived in Libby in 1999, when news reports linked asbestos contamination from the mine to the deaths and illnesses.
EPA documents uncovered by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2002 estimated that millions of American households contain a brand of insulation known as Zonolite, made for decades by W.R Grace. According to a report by that newspaper in December of that year, the EPA was expected to announce a warning about the Zonolite in April 2002 and declare a public health emergency. But the warning was not issued because of White House intervention, the newspaper said.
The EPA has maintained it was behind the decision not to declare an emergency.
Baucus said he will force the agency to comply with his request for documents if officials don’t produce them.
“I want to know what the heck happened here,” Baucus said. “The fact of the matter is a public health emergency should have been declared in 2002. I want to know who decided not to and why. People are dying in Libby. They deserve to know the truth.”
Johnson was in Libby touring cleanup sites with Baucus.
In his speech, Johnson said the EPA wants to be responsive to Baucus and his information request. The agency is sifting through thousands of pages of documents to pass on to the senator, he said, but does not want to compromise the government’s ongoing asbestos case against W.R. Grace and Co.
Subpoenas would be issued through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the agency. In a statement, committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she is supportive of Baucus’ efforts.
Baucus said he also is seeking documents related to Libby toxicity studies.
Last year, the EPA inspector general issued a report saying the agency needs to do more testing to be certain its asbestos cleanup reduces the risk that Libby residents may become ill or sicker from asbestos contamination. The agency says those tests are now under way.
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