Groundhog day 

A public hearing in Libby offers new promises

It must have seemed like déjà vu for some Libby residents on April 5. That’s when Montana Sen. Max Baucus held a field hearing for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a conference room in Libby’s city hall with Susan Parker Bodine, who heads Superfund cleanup for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Baucus’ public show of indignation in front of 100 curious Libby residents was almost exactly the same as a hearing held in 2000, although the specific targets of anger had changed.

The last field hearing was held after it was revealed asbestos-containing ore had poisoned Libby residents while federal and state agencies, along with W.R. Grace, the company that mined the ore, allegedly ignored the problem. At that time, the hearing allowed Baucus and representatives of the EPA to express mutual resentment over what had occurred, and make bold promises to ensure the town would be cleaned. But in retrospect, the EPA cleanup since 2000 makes the first hearing look like a dog and pony show, and leads one to wonder if the latest hearing is more of the same.

The recent meeting comes on the heels of a series of gaffes by the EPA. Earlier this year, after being investigated by the EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the agency admitted it cannot, after seven years and $110 million dollars, say whether or not Libby is clean because it hasn’t done toxicological studies of the town’s asbestos. Before being investigated, the EPA planned to finish the cleanup this year, without doing the study.

Baucus, who was positioned at the head of the conference room opposite Bodine, as if in a debate, focused on the two main questions concerning Libby residents: why did the EPA not do a toxicological study of Libby asbestos years ago, and when will Libby finally be cleaned?

The audience watched in silence as Bodine, who appeared flustered and unprepared for the questions, struggled to deliver any definite answers. She admitted a toxicological study is standard operating procedure during cleanup of a Superfund site, but could not offer an explanation on why it hadn’t been done in Libby.

Baucus then offered his own theory—the EPA avoided the study, despite Libby being the deadliest Superfund site in the world with more than 200 asbestos-related deaths, because of money.

“EPA’s own scientists requested a toxicological study, but the funds were denied [by the EPA],” Baucus said. “Why in the world would the EPA turn that down?”

“I don’t know why that didn’t happen,” Bodine responded.

“I’m a little surprised that you wouldn’t know that,” Baucus replied. “The buck stops with you.”

Later in the hearing, Baucus addressed the question of when the cleanup would be finished.

Bodine said it would take three years and $6.2 million to complete the toxicological study alone. When Baucus pressed for a final cleanup date, she objected to giving a specific timeline, saying it would be impossible to plan until the initial study is complete.

Baucus resigned to asking Bodine to look into ways of speeding up the toxicological study, and submit a monthly progress report on her findings directly to him.

After Baucus finished questioning Bodine, a preselected panel of Libby residents spoke about the cleanup, and then audience members were given a chance to speak and ask questions. Despite skepticism, some took advantage of the forum as a legitimate chance to raise concerns to Baucus and the EPA.

Tom Wood, chief of Libby’s volunteer fire department, pointed out the EPA’s decision to leave asbestos containing vermiculite in attics, crawl spaces and behind walls in Libby’s homes is causing firemen to be exposed when those residences burn down. Wood noted five firemen have died in recent years due to asbestos-related disease. He asked Baucus for more funding to supply the department with proper equipment for avoiding exposure; Baucus said he’s working on the issue.

Other Libby residents wondered aloud whether, once again, Libby was just getting a political show. This group included Gordon Sullivan, who formerly worked as a liaison between the EPA and the town on technical issues surrounding the cleanup. Sullivan quit in 2005 over frustrations the EPA had not done toxicological studies.

Sullivan brought up a report made by former OIG investigator Cory Rumple, which was the catalyst for exposing problems with the Libby cleanup, but has still not been released to the public.

“The fact is, Senator, we’ve never gotten Cory Rumple’s report, have we?” Sullivan asked.

“No,” Baucus answered.

“And we won’t, will we?”

Baucus ensured Sullivan that he would get it, telling the Independent later, “I want to see it.”

Sullivan also brought up what he says was a commitment given by the EPA to do a toxicological study during a 2004 meeting in Denver.

“[In 2004] they promised us that they would have a risk assessment in six months,” he said, confirming with other members of the audience that this promise had been made.

“How many promises does it take?” he asked. “We would like to think there’s a new day coming in Libby, Montana. I’d especially like to see that happen.”

But, he continued, echoing a sentiment felt from Baucus and the rest of the crowd, “I don’t trust you, Ms. Bodine. Sorry to say that, but I don’t trust you.”
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