EPA Cleanup Plan Leaves Some Asbestos in Libby

Long-delayed cleanup plan says some asbestos-contaminated vermiculite can be safely managed in mining town

By Tristan Scott
Downtown Libby. Beacon File Photo

In its long-delayed final cleanup plan for the contaminated mining town of Libby, where asbestos exposure has sickened thousands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 5 proposed leaving some of the deadly material in places where it presents minimal risk, including in the walls of houses and underground.

The plan is more than 15 years in the making, dating back to early media reports that revealed widespread illness caused by asbestos exposure from the W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine and prompted the EPA’s response. Health officials estimate that more than 400 Libby residents have died of asbestos-related disease in the past several decades and thousands more are sickened from breathing asbestos fibers.

The vermiculite tailings from Zonolite Mountain near Libby was used as home insulation and fire retardant, mixed in with garden topsoil and used to make the track at Libby High School.

It was also riddled with deadly asbestos.

Since the EPA’s initial response, the agency has spent $540 million removing a million cubic yards of contaminated dirt from more than 2,000 properties, and officials say Libby’s air is now much safer than it was.

However, about 300 to 500 properties could need further cleanup work. In many of those cases, EPA officials said property owners have refused access to the agency, but residents worry that future disturbances could release hazardous contaminants.

Airborne asbestos concentrations in the community of 3,000 residents are now comparable to levels in other cities, according to officials, but residents worry that the asbestos-laden vermiculite could escape during excavation work, construction, home renovations, and other unforeseen disturbances.

Even though the air is safe in Libby today than it was when the EPA first arrived, having removed thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil and replacing it with clean topsoil, the agency has acknowledged some people in Libby still are at risk, particularly landscapers and others who stir asbestos-laden soil.

If the agency’s proposal moves forward, following a two-month public comment period, officials said the EPA could wrap most of its work in Libby by the end of the decade.

The agency’s proposal includes a number of “institutional controls” to manage the remaining asbestos. Those include zoning restrictions that would prohibit what activities are allowed on contaminated property, permit requirements for the disturbance of contaminated soil or building materials, and advisories issued to firefighters and others who might inadvertently encounter asbestos on the job.

Just how much asbestos is being left behind is uncertain. Agency officials have never fully documented how many homes and businesses were left with vermiculite in their walls after cleanup work was completed.

The Libby area remains for now in the EPA’s Superfund program.

W.R. Grace reached a $250 million settlement with the EPA in 2008 to cover government cleanup costs in Libby and the surrounding area. The company remains responsible for cleaning up the mine site. Company executives accused of knowing of the health problems in the town were acquitted of federal criminal charges in 2009.

Public comment on the proposed plan will run for 60 days, from May 8 to July 8. The plan is available online at http://www2.epa.gov/region8/libby-asbestos

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