Libby’s Effort to Shake ‘Stigma’ Takes a Hit

By Beacon Staff

On May 8, 2009, a U.S. District Court jury acquitted W.R. Grace and Co. along with three former executives on charges of knowingly poisoning residents in the asbestos-tainted Northwest Montana town of Libby.

Immediately following the verdict, there was talk throughout Libby of ushering in a new era, one not defined by death and suffering. Hundreds of people have died from asbestos-related complications there and perhaps thousands more have been sickened.

This new era, the hopeful residents said, would be in the spirit of healing and economic development. Libby would be a safer, healthier and happier place to live.

“We’ve got to get on with life,” Dean Herreid, a Libby resident suffering from painful asbestosis, said shortly after the verdict. “Justice was attempted.”

And then there was Mayor Doug Roll: “We need to get the stigma of the ‘death town’ away from us. It’s been hanging over us for at least nine years.”

But two years later, an Associated Press report has emerged detailing new potential dangers, stemming from widely distributed wood chips and bark contaminated with unknown levels of asbestos.

The report comes on the heels of a series of positive announcements for increased health care funding for asbestos victims, isolated economic advancements within the town and measurable progress in cleanup efforts.

Just last month, Sen. Max Baucus announced $10 million in funding for the Libby CARD Clinic. The month before, a long-awaited toxicology report concluded Libby is now safer after a $370 million cleanup effort, though it said dangers persist.

According to the AP, the contaminated wood chips and bark have been popular for landscaping, used in home yards, city parks, around schools and elsewhere.

“Local officials estimate that 1,000 tons were used in landscaping and for erosion control in Libby,” the AP’s Matthew Brown wrote. “Over the past decade, as much as 15,000 tons were sold and hauled out of town to destinations unknown.”

Reacting to the report, Montana’s senators and lone congressman have issued statements questioning the Environmental Protection Agency, while reiterating their desire to help Libby “move forward” and “put the asbestos mess behind them.”

“The people of Libby have already been poisoned in the name of greed and I won’t allow them to be victimized again because of negligence,” Baucus, a longtime advocate for Libby asbestos victims, said last week.

“We need to work together to make sure safety information is complete and transparent so the community can move forward and create jobs with faith in the agencies and processes that are supposed to protect them.”

Specifically, Baucus raised concerns over the revelation that the EPA has known about the wood chip contamination for years, as reported by the AP.

“We’ve made tremendous strides in the effort to help Libby heal with health care and environmental cleanup,” Baucus said. “But trust is essential to Libby’s ability to heal psychologically and economically.

“Now it appears EPA’s actions may have put that trust in jeopardy, so you can bet I’ll be holding EPA’s feet to the fire to find out exactly what they knew, when they knew it, and whether action is needed to ensure the safety of folks in Libby and across the country who were exposed to this bark.”

On July 6, Baucus sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, referring to “broken trust” and requesting answers to a series of questions regarding her agency’s knowledge of the contamination. The next day, Baucus met with Jackson to discuss both Libby and the oil pipeline spill on the Yellowstone River.

Congressman Denny Rehberg sent a similar letter to Jackson, calling out the EPA’s “untimely and downright negligent response” to the wood chip contamination.

“The folks in Libby want to put the asbestos mess behind them, but they can’t do that while they are waiting for the EPA to do its job,” Rehberg said. “They want answers, and so do I.”

In a statement to the Beacon, Sen. Jon Tester also called on the EPA to address the situation in Libby.

“This report underlines what Montanans have long known – too many questions remain unanswered,” Tester said. “The EPA needs to be transparent and responsive when it comes to all possible sources of contamination, for the sake of Libby’s health and economy.”

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