News & Features

EPA: Asbestos Cleanup Reducing Health Risks in Libby

Fifteen years after work began on the largest Superfund site in American history, the EPA releases a human health assessment for Libby

The Environmental Protection Agency says cleanup efforts in Lincoln County are reducing deadly asbestos poisoning that has killed or sickened hundreds of residents.

The EPA on Monday released a 328-page human health assessment for Libby, a town stricken with an unprecedented asbestos contamination stemming from a nearby W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculate mine that operated from 1963 to 1990.

The draft report states that the $500 million effort to clean more than 2,000 private homes and properties has resulted in air asbestos concentrations that are 100,000 times lower than when the mine was open.

The human health assessment does acknowledge that it would be impossible to remove all of the asbestos from Lincoln County, in part because it is naturally occurring in the area. Asbestos that is sealed in walls and remains undisturbed does not pose a serious threat to human health, according to the report. However, inhaling even a small amount of asbestos could cause serious lung problems.

“EPA’s scientific evaluation shows that our cleanup approach is working and we are reducing health risks for residents in Libby,” said Shaun McGrath, EPA’s regional administrator. “We look forward to working with the community to use this important science in identifying the final set of cleanup actions.”

Following the release of the report, the EPA announced it would be holding three town hall meetings in Lincoln County to discuss the report, on Dec. 9 and Dec. 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Libby City Hall and on Dec. 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Kootenai Senior Center in Troy.

More than 2,000 current or former residents of Lincoln County have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and at least 400 have died in the last decade.

Libby was declared an EPA Superfund site in 2002, becoming the largest Superfund site in U.S. history. In 2009, former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson named the town the agency’s first and only Public Health Emergency resulting from an environmental disaster.

The new health assessment includes cancerous and noncancerous toxicity values for Libby Amphibole Asbestos and information about what populations are at risk of exposure. For example, the noncancerous value is 90 fibers per cubic meter for an entire lifetime, which translates to being exposed to a washing-machine sized amount of contaminated fibers over the course of a life. The risk of exposure increases depending on the activity and environment. For example, someone driving a car or hiking near the old asbestos mine is more likely to be exposed than someone doing the same thing in other parts of the county.

The report concludes that the cleanup that has taken place over the last 15 years is successful and sets the stage for its conclusion. In the coming months, the EPA will produce a remedial investigation and feasibility study that will outline possible alternatives for how to finish the cleanup. Senior toxicologist Dr. Deborah McKean said that a final record of decision would be issued in mid-2015.

“The cleanup efforts have been effective and Libby is a good place to live and visit,” she said.

There are about 800 properties that have not been cleaned because either the owners did not want to have anything to do with the cleanup or they wanted the human health risk assessment to come out first. EPA officials hope now that the assessment has come out, more people will contact them about getting their land cleaned up.

Libby Mayor Doug Roll encouraged any resident who has not had their property inspected and cleaned to do so. He said the human health assessment – which had been delayed numerous times in the past – was a “long time coming.”

“I hope this (report) helps lifts the clouds that have hung over Libby,” he said.

The health assessment’s release comes a month after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock chided the EPA for delaying its release. On Dec. 8, spokesperson Dave Parker told the Beacon that the governor was pleased that the report had finally been released.

“We will carefully review those findings to make sure they can be used to provide the citizens of Libby with a clean and healthful environment,” Parker said.