The long-awaited handoff of a large section of the Libby Superfund site from federal to state control has been delayed by the coronavirus.
On March 30, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not be transferring control of Operable Units (OU) 4 and 7 – an area that covers most of the residential and commercial areas in Libby and Troy – to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The federal government had originally planned to make the transfer April 1.
“We wanted to inform you that EPA and the Montana DEQ have decided to postpone the transfer of responsibility for operation and maintenance activity at the residential and commercial areas of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site due to limitations associated with in-person coordination during the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” officials announced in an email.
While the transfer has been delayed, officials say it will not impact any on-the-ground activities or remedies currently in place at the site.
When Montana DEQ does take over for the federal government, it will be responsible for site monitoring, implementing institutional controls and oversight of the long-term protection of the remedies in place. While some asbestos was removed during the cleanup, which began in the early 2000s, much of it was left in place in the walls of buildings or underground.
Federal officials have said as long as the material is not disturbed it does not pose a threat to the public. The institutional controls at the site include maintaining a database of properties that were not cleaned during the superfund cleanup as well as educational programs to inform the public, contractors and others of the dangers of disturbing asbestos. Residents would also have to inform the Asbestos Resource Program (run by Lincoln County) before doing various activities like excavating, landscaping and interior or exterior demolition.
While Montana will eventually control OU4 (Libby) and OU7 (Troy), the federal government will still be the lead on the remaining areas, specifically OU3, which includes the former W.R. Grace & Co. asbestos mine and surrounding land. The asbestos from the mine has killed hundreds and sickened thousands and led to Libby being ground zero for one of the largest environmental cleanups in American history.