Libby Residents Worry About Future as EPA Issues New Assessment

Locals ask what will happen to community after EPA leaves

By Justin Franz

While the Environmental Protection Agency says Libby is a safe place to live, some longtime residents are concerned about what the future holds after the largest Superfund cleanup in U.S. history comes to an end.

Last week, the EPA released a 328-page human health assessment for Libby and Lincoln County, a community stricken with asbestos contamination stemming from a nearby W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine that operated from 1963 to 1990.

In its report, the EPA states the remedial cleanup that has been ongoing for 15 years has helped improve the environment in Libby, noting that the air is now 100,000 times cleaner than it was when the mine operated. But some residents are skeptical.

“The air is clean now, but what about all of the material they are going to leave behind?” asked Eva Thompson, a 75-year-old woman who lost her husband and father to the cancer that has sickened thousands and killed at least 400 people in Lincoln County.

Thompson, who along with her two sons suffers from mesothelioma, said the EPA cleaned her home in Libby but left asbestos-contaminated soil and dirt in her lawn because the area was not used. Now that the EPA is preparing to leave, she wants to know what will happen to her property, and others like it, when the agency is gone. Her sister, Gayla Benefield, has the same concerns.

“They still can’t guarantee that someone won’t get ill and that’s not very reassuring,” she said. “The people need to be educated in the future on how to deal with this and the agencies need to provide that education at no cost.”

The EPA report states that asbestos sealed underground or in a wall is not a threat and many area buildings still have the product in its walls. Both sisters are concerned that when the EPA is gone, people who are working on their home and find asbestos will “just double bag it and take it to the dump.”

Two years ago the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program opened to educate the community and provide a resource for people who encounter asbestos. But manager Nick Raines said the program is only financed through 2016 and what happens after that is unknown.

“It’s a big concern for us,” he said.

Senior toxicologist Deborah McKean said the EPA has anywhere from three to five more years of cleanup work and after that some institutional controls will be put in place. Among them could be the continuation of the asbestos resource program.

But McKean said it is too early to know exactly what the future will look like. 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. McKean said a final record of decision would be issued in mid-2015.

“There are more questions than answers rights now,” EPA spokesperson Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said. “But we’re continuing to have discussions with the community.”

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