EPA Cleans up Vermiculite at Libby Elementary School

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Insulation that likely contained asbestos was found leaking from a small hole in an outside wall at an elementary school in Libby, but the material has been cleaned up, and students are not at risk, officials with the school and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.

The hole at Asa Wood Elementary School probably was caused by an excavator removing snow from school grounds earlier this month, Superintendent Kirby Maki said.

The excavator also apparently deposited some snow in the hole, and when the snow melted this week, the vermiculite trickled out, said Mike Cirian, onsite remedial project manager for the EPA.

Students discovered the leak during recess last week and alerted a teacher, Principal Margie Johnson said. The school then contacted Cirian, who summoned a cleanup crew.

“The teacher on duty grew up here, and she knew exactly what it (the vermiculite) was,” Johnson said. “She steered the kids away.”

Cirian said the crew had the leaking material removed and taken to a landfill by 6:30 p.m. Workers also patched up the hole and made sure there weren’t any others, he said.

In all, they removed less than a quarter-yard of vermiculite — or enough to fill half an outdoor garbage can, Cirian said.

“It worked out really well,” he said. “They called us, and within 3½ hours, the job was cleaned up, and it was back to normal business.”

The rest of the vermiculite at Asa Wood is safe because it’s incapsulated, Cirian said.

“It is all contained in the walls, and it will stay that way unless there is another breach,” he said.

Cirian said the vermiculite in the insulation at Asa Wood likely came from the now-closed W.R. Grace & Co. mine.

Vermiculite from the mine, used in insulation and a variety of household products, contained harmful tremolite asbestos, which is blamed by some health authorities for killing more than 275 people in the Libby area and sickening hundreds more.

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. Since then, it has cleaned up more than 950 properties, including yards, driveways, gardens and children’s play areas, Cirian said.

The agency doesn’t remove materials that are incapsulated, however. “That decision was made by the EPA years ago,” Cirian said.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Wednesday called the Asa Wood vermiculite leak an “outrage.”

“There was a pile of vermiculite sitting outside the place we send our kids to learn,” he said in a statement. “Our government has failed us in Libby.”

Baucus said the leak was “further proof that a public health emergency should have been declared” in Libby. The senator has said a formal public health emergency declaration would authorize the EPA to do more extensive cleanup in homes and other structures, including removal of contaminated insulation. It also would increase health screenings and health care for Libby residents.

“Words cannot express my anger over this,” Baucus said Wednesday. “I think heads should roll at EPA.”

School officials said the leak was discovered late in the school day Friday and did not disrupt classes. However, Maki told Kalispell television station KCFW that a few students may have been exposed to asbestos after playing with the vermiculite from the spill.

This week, Asa Wood sent parents letters about the incident, and the EPA held a meeting with staff to provide asbestos training, Maki said. The agency also met with students to talk to them about the dangers of vermiculite and what to do if they spot it.

“It was an educational opportunity, especially for the little kids,” Maki said. “They asked a lot of good questions.”

Maki said the vermiculite leak has prompted “closer surveillance” at the school, which includes having staff members inspect the outside walls each morning before students arrive.

“The whole thing was an unfortunate incident, but we handled it as best we could,” Maki said. “Safety is the No. 1 thing for those little kids and the people who work there.”

Built in the early 1950s, Asa Wood is the district’s oldest school and requires extra scrutiny, such as air-quality and other tests, Maki said, adding that there has been talk about replacing the aging building.

Besides Asa Wood, the district owns at least two other buildings that contain insulation made from vermiculite, Maki said. One is used for Head Start and preschool programs, and the other is leased to state agencies. The vermiculite in those buildings also is incapsulated, he said.