News & Features

EPA Deletes Portion of Libby Superfund Site from National Priorities List

Federal environmental officials say removal of former screening plant reflects continued cleanup progress at asbestos-contaminated site

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said it was deleting a portion of the asbestos-contaminated Superfund site in Libby after determining that all required cleanup activities at the former screening plant are complete.

According to federal officials, removing the old screening plant from Superfund represents a milestone in the sprawling effort to undo more than six decades of contamination, during which a vermiculite mine daily spewed tons of asbestos-laden dust over the idyllic town situated in Northwest Montana.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands sickened following decades of exposure to asbestos from the now-shuttered W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine, once the lifeblood of Libby as workers filled lucrative jobs mining asbestos-laced ore, then carried the dust home on their clothes, exposing themselves and their families to the deadly fibers.

The mine closed in 1990, but more than 2,000 current or former residents of Lincoln County have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, including cancer and mesothelioma, and at least 400 have died in the last decade.

In 2002, the site of the former vermiculite mine was added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites, as federal officials screened more than 3,000 properties for asbestos contamination and began residential cleanup.

The Superfund site was divided into eight operable units divided into distinct areas depending on the complexity of the cleanup and the extent of contamination.

Federal and state environmental officials said removal of Operable Unit 2 — the official designation of the former screening plant on the Kootenai River, about five miles northeast of Libby where — marks another step toward completing a toxic cleanup that has dragged on for 20 years.

“The deletion of these properties from the Superfund list reflects the progress EPA and our partners continue to make in cleaning up and restoring properties in Libby,” according to a statement released by EPA Acting Regional Administrator Deb Thomas.

The Libby Asbestos Superfund site was placed on the National Priorities List in 2002 due to high levels of Libby Amphibole asbestos in and around the communities of Libby and Troy, becoming one of the largest environmental cleanups in U.S. history. In 2009, former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson named the town the agency’s first and only Public Health Emergency resulting from an environmental disaster.

Operable Unit 2 of the site includes areas impacted by asbestos contamination released from the former Screening Plant. These areas include the former plant, the Flyway property, the Highway 37 right‐of‐way next to the former Screening Plant and Rainy Creek Road and privately owned properties, collectively totaling 45 acres. Components of the long-term remedy included the removal and containment of contaminants and institutional controls to prevent exposure. EPA completed these cleanup actions in 2012.

“EPA is deleting OU2 based on a determination that no further remediation action is needed to protect human health and the environment,” according to the agency’s announcement. “The area will continue to be subject to operation and maintenance activities, including regular reviews for protectiveness. EPA will continue to address contamination concerns at remaining Operable Units of the Libby Asbestos site, which includes the former mine site.”

Since 1999, the EPA’s cleanup has removed more than a million cubic yards of dirt and building materials from area properties.

The price tag for the cleanup surpassed $575 million last year.

Even though the EPA has determined the site of the former screening plant meets all the requirements of Superfund, deletion of the site from the National Priorities List does not preclude the EPA from taking future management actions, officials said.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.