Trees turn on Libby 

It appears even Libby’s trees couldn’t escape the asbestos pouring out of W.R. Grace’s deadly vermiculite mine.

According to a recent report prepared by University of Montana’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, bark samples taken from three locations in Libby yielded “substantial amphiole fiber contamination.” Amphiole fibers are the ones responsible for asbestosis in Libby residents.

But, Dr. Tony Ward, who prepared the tree study, noted that the word “substantial” may not have much meaning when it comes to the health of Libby residents, because the human threshold for exposure to the fibers is unknown.

“No one knows the amount needed to cause disease,” Ward says.

Ironically, this news comes on the heels of a recent announcement that $1 million worth of new wood-burning stoves, chimneys and services were being donated by the wood stove industry in an effort to help curb an air pollution problem that makes air quality in Lincoln County among the worst in the country. Outdated woodstoves in Libby were identified as the culprit in the bad air.

But fiber contamination in the bark may make Libby trees useless for burning in stoves. Ward said he will continue studying the bark this summer, and hopes to provide Libby with enough information by this winter to decide whether or not to burn the wood.

Michael Crill, a Libby resident dying of asbestosis and an activist in Libby’s fight for justice, raised more questions about the contaminated bark.

Crill pointed out that logging could also be affected by this latest discovery. Crill’s wife, sister, brother-in-law and son all worked in Libby’s lumber mills. Crill wonders if dust from timber-cutting operations may have polluted the air mill workers breathe. He also mentioned the possibility that Libby bark may have been sent around the country for landscaping.

The effect of the bark on loggers and people who use the bark as landscaping is unknown, but Crill hopes that studies will eventually give more concrete information.

In the meantime, the discovery of asbestos fibers in tree bark makes one thing clear in Crill’s mind—that the EPA is wrong to say that Libby is in the clear.

“You can’t declare Libby clean, because it’s not clean; you can’t declare Libby safe, because it’s not safe.”

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