EPA Looks to the Future and Eventually Leaving Libby

Officials say a final risk assessment will be issued sometime in 2015

By Justin Franz

More than a decade after one of the largest Superfund projects in American history got underway in Lincoln County, local, state and federal officials are now looking toward the future and thinking about how the Libby asbestos cleanup will end. Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency will meet with local officials later this year to discuss what type of institutional controls to put in place once the federal agency wraps up its cleanup and hands it over to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

But local officials, including the Lincoln County Commission, are concerned that future cleanup costs could be passed on to homeowners and have a detrimental impact on property values in the area.

According to EPA Libby project manager Rebecca Thomas, it is still too early to tell what type of institutional controls could be implemented in Libby, but suggested that some asbestos that is sealed off inside a home or buried deep underground may not be removed. Institution controls are rules or regulations that are implemented in a community after a Superfund cleanup to reduce human exposure to a contamination.

“The EPA can’t remove all of the asbestos,” Thomas said. “I’m not even confident we can find and remove all of it. Because of that there will be encounters with asbestos after the EPA is gone and the question is how will people deal with those encounters.”

For years, asbestos-laden vermiculate was mined near Libby by the Maryland-based W.R. Grace & Company. The mine closed in 1990, but the effects of the poisonous asbestos have lasted for years. According to the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, also known as the CARD Clinic, some 2,000 current or former residents of Lincoln County have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and at least 400 have died. Libby was declared an EPA Superfund site in 2002 and in June 2009, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson named the town the agency’s first and only Public Health Emergency resulting from an environmental disaster.

Because of how expansive the contamination was, the EPA began to clean up sites in Lincoln County before a risk assessment was completed. However, because the EPA had never dealt with Libby asbestos, the agency also had to find its toxicity value. Toxicity is a measure of how much of a substance is needed to cause harm to an organism. Thomas said the final toxicity value should be determined later this year and after that it would take about six months to issue the risk assessment. She said the assessment would determine what type of additional cleanup would be needed and what institutional controls would be implemented.

At a recent meeting between the EPA and DEQ, and attended by Nick Raines, manager of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program, officials discussed the fact that some asbestos would be left behind. That concerned Raines, who met with Lincoln County officials earlier this month to talk about the future of the cleanup. Raines said for years, many people in the area thought there would be financial resources from the federal government to deal with the cleanup once the EPA left, but now it’s unclear if federal money will be available.

Commissioner Tony Berget was in attendance and he said he was concerned about how future homeowners would deal with asbestos in their walls if the EPA was not there to help pay for the cleanup. Berget said homeowners would not want to pay for an expensive asbestos mitigation in their home if they just wanted to install a new light switch.

“They would probably just double-bag it and bring it to the country dump,” Berget said. “We can’t pass these costs on to the people.”

Raines said he hopes all agencies at all levels of government will be able to work together in the coming months. Officials at the EPA agreed.

“We want to work through these complicated issues and the EPA will not make any decisions without community input,” Thomas said. “Without community support, no institutional controls will work.”

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