HELENA – A lawsuit charges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is improperly withholding a report about “mishandling” of environmental cleanup in Libby, the northwestern Montana town where some residents blame an old mine’s asbestos for widespread disease and dozens of deaths.
The suit by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility seeks the court-ordered release of a 2006 report prepared by an investigator for the EPA Office of Inspector General. PEER, an alliance of government-employed professionals, says the report covers the public-health implications of the way in which EPA conducted the Libby cleanup.
PEER says the suit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., follows EPA’s denial of both a Freedom of Information Act request the organization submitted in January, and a subsequent appeal.
The report sought “is a matter of public concern because it contains not only facts and assessments of the status of the Libby cleanup, but also policy and action recommendations by (investigator) Cory Rumple regarding criminal acts and investigations relating to the mishandling of the Libby cleanup,” the lawsuit says.
In a statement, EPA said the suit is under review. The Office of Inspector General issued a “constructive denial” of the FOIA request and has authority to determine which records should be withheld, EPA said in the statement. Spokesman John Manibusan said Friday the agency had no other comment.
The suit says EPA withheld records that reflect on the safety and completeness of the agency’s vermiculite removal in Libby. Vermiculite mined near the town from around 1920 until 1990 contained asbestos and was dispersed in the Libby area. Pathways included miners themselves, some of whom had asbestos contamination on their clothes when they went home.
Lawyers for some residents contend asbestos exposure has killed about 225 people in the Libby area and sickened about 2,000.
Since late February, mine operator W.R. Grace & Co. and five of its former executives have been on trial in Missoula, facing government allegations they knowingly exposed Libby residents to asbestos.
The lawsuit cites President Obama’s policy, issued in January, stating that “openness prevails” when there is doubt about requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The government should not keep information confidential for fear disclosure will embarrass public officials, or because errors or failures might be revealed, the policy states. Its scope will be tested by the lawsuit, PEER said.
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