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EPA Inches Closer to Releasing Libby Superfund Remedies

Agency turns its attention to cleaning up the W.R. Grace mine site

By Justin Franz

The Environmental Protection Agency plans on unveiling a report in the coming weeks that will lay the groundwork for its next steps in the asbestos poisoning cleanup in Libby.

The report will outline preferred cleanup methods for Libby and Lincoln County and long-term institution controls that will signal the beginning of the end of the community cleanup that began more than a decade ago. The report comes just months after the EPA released its human health assessment that stated cleanup efforts in Lincoln County had drastically reduced the poisoning that has killed or sickened hundreds of residents over the years.

“It’s a work in progress,” said EPA program manager Rebecca Thomas. “The release of the human health assessment (in December) was a huge milestone in the cleanup and we’re looking forward to these final decisions … We want to help the community redevelop and get past this Superfund cleanup.”

Thomas said it’s too early to announce exactly what the EPA and Department of Environmental Protection will recommend in the report, due in early May, but said that it will recommend that more properties be cleaned and that some asbestos be left in place. Thomas also revealed that the EPA would recommend the continuation of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program to help manage the contamination after the EPA leaves town. When the EPA does leave, DEQ will manage the Superfund site.

When the draft recommendations are released there will be a series of public meetings and the agency will accept public comment. Once the public comment period is complete, the EPA will release its final recommendation for how to move forward and finish the cleanup. Thomas estimates that the EPA could remain on site for another three to five years. Since the cleanup began, the EPA has cleaned more than 2,000 properties and Thomas said it would like to complete 300 to 500 more within the next few years.

But even after the EPA’s cleanup of Libby is done, there will still be more to do just up the road in an area called OU-3. The 30,000-acre area includes the former mine site and the land around it that has remained relatively untouched since W.R. Grace and Company closed the asbestos mine in 1990. Christina Progress is the project manager for the OU-3 area, which also includes the Kootenai River. She was in Libby recently for a public meeting about the mine site cleanup and said that W.R. Grace recently finished a remedial investigation of the site under EPA supervision. Now the EPA will begin feasibility study to determine how the mine site could be cleaned. Progress said it would take at least a year before that study is completed.

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