EPA Refines Parameters of Asbestos Mine Cleanup Area

EPA official says further study has forced agency to expand the cleanup area around former W.R. Grace & Co. mine

By Justin Franz
The EPA recently expanded the boundaries of OU3, an area that includes the former W.R. Grace and Co. mine site and the surrounding forest. The entrance station to the former mine, pictured on June 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Environmental Protection Agency has expanded the parameters of the cleanup area around the former asbestos mine near Libby that was the epicenter of one of the biggest Superfund projects in American history.

Project Manager Christina Progress said the EPA has expanded the boundaries of Operable Unit 3 – the administrative area that includes the shuttered W.R. Grace & Co. mine north of Libby – from 35,000 acres to 47,000 acres. Progress said the change came after the EPA conducted additional dust and bark sampling last year in the Rainy Creek Drainage.

While the Superfund cleanup in Libby and Troy is winding down, cleanup efforts are just beginning around the shuttered vermiculate mine just north of Libby. Since it closed, thousands of people have been sickened and hundreds of died because of prolonged exposure to the asbestos laden vermiculate produced in Lincoln County until 1990.

Last year, the EPA and other local agencies tested dirt and bark around the mine to see how much asbestos it contained. They also conducted a small controlled burn to see what type of toxins would be released into the air in the event of a wildfire near the old mine. The testing showed that there is more hazardous material than previously believed northeast of the mine site. Progress said more testing is planned for this summer.

“That boundary could move as additional data comes in this summer,” she said.

W.R. Grace is currently working with the EPA on preparing two separate feasibility studies that will look at how OU3 should be cleaned up. One study will focus on the forested area around the mine and the other will include the mine site and nearby rivers. Progress said officials wanted to do a feasibility study on the forested area sooner because of the concern about wildfires. Officials hope to finish both studies in late-2016 or 2017. Once those studies are completed, the EPA will put together a proposed cleanup plan and then issue a record of decision.

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