Completed Libby Risk Assessment Lays Groundwork for Final Cleanup

Officials say final report issued on Friday confirms that community is safe

By Justin Franz
Downtown Libby. Beacon file photo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of its Human Health Risk Assessment for the Libby Asbestos Superfund on Friday, a document that will shape the last stages of one of the largest environmental cleanups in American history.

The document comes 11 months after a draft version was released in December 2014 that found the EPA’s cleanup so far had made it possible to live and work in the Libby area without excessive exposure to asbestos. The unprecedented asbestos contamination there, which has killed hundreds and sickened thousands, stems from the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculate mine that operated there from 1963 to 1990.

Officials said the detailed health assessment remains relatively unchanged from the draft version released last year.

“It’s been a long road and a lot of people have worked a long time to get to this point,” said Stan Christensen, an EPA Superfund unit leader based in Denver. “This guides our final remedy for the clean up of residential properties and now we can issue a record of decision.”

The Human Health Risk Assessment acknowledges that removing all of the asbestos from Lincoln County would be impossible, in part because it’s naturally occurring in that area. Asbestos that is sealed in the walls of homes 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.

Since the early 2000s, the EPA has investigated more than 7,000 properties in Lincoln County but it is still awaiting access to about 700 homes and buildings. Those property owners who have not had their homes inspected are encouraged to call the EPA in Libby at (406) 293-6194.

Christensen said this risk assessment covers the communities of Libby, Troy and the surrounding area. However, it does not cover the old W.R. Grace mine site itself, known as Operable Unit 3. Earlier this year, the EPA started to put together a feasibility study to determine how parts of OU3 will be cleaned and what type of institutional controls might be put in place to protect the public.

Now that the risk assessment is out, Christensen said that a record of decision could be issued before the end of the year. Once the record of decision is issued, the EPA will be able to come up with a final game plan for the clean up and eventually control of the site will be handed over to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

To read the entire risk assessment, visit www.epa.gov/superfund/libby-asbestos.