The Missouri-based company Environmental Restoration (ER) last week won its second five-year contract to do remediation work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in Libby, despite the fact that the EPA chastised the firm in 2007 for violating federal safety regulations.
The EPA’s seven-year-old cleanup effort in Libby seeks to purge the town of asbestos contamination accumulated over 70 years of vermiculite mining by W.R. Grace and its predecessor, Zonolite Co.
The highly sought after EPA contract allows ER to compete with two other firms for various tasks in the massive cleanup project, including such things as the removal of asbestos-contaminated zonolite, a raw form of insulation found in Libby buildings.
This past winter, the EPA told Andrea Peacock, a writer for the political newsletter CounterPunch (and former Indy editor), that ER was threatened with losing its contract after an inspector discovered that trucks running zonolite from the town to a mine repository were not being properly rinsed off. Regulations require contractors to hose down the rigs after every trip to the repository, but ER was doing the washing with pond water that had drained through tailings at the Grace mine site, and was therefore heavily contaminated with asbestos itself.
In 2003, the EPA gave ER a small supply of filters fine enough to catch the asbestos, assuming the contractor would purchase its own supply when the stash ran out. ER’s official response to the EPA makes no claim that the company ever did so.
ER Libby project manager Chuck Jackson declined to comment on the situation, directing Indy inquiries to the corporate office in St. Louis. An ER spokesperson there said contractual obligations forbid the disclosure of construction details—including details about when exactly the filters fell out of use.
According to CounterPunch, the sullied trucks have made approximately 4,000 trips along Highway 37 every year, potentially exposing residents along the route to airborne asbestos fibers since 2003.
EPA officials say ER was awarded the new contract largely for its use of local labor in remediation projects. The agency also maintains that fault for the filter oversight belongs to all parties in the cleanup, not simply ER.