Groundhog day 

EPA faces new questions about Libby cleanup

Two boat docks extend from Libby's Riverfront Park into the Kootenai River. It's a grassy, cool spot in the shadow of the Cabinet Mountain Range. Picnic tables and pavilions host summer festivals, weddings and musical performances. The scene appears idyllic, yet beneath the surface sits the epicenter of the country's deadliest Superfund site.

Ten years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived to clear asbestos contaminated vermiculite from this tiny town, eight years after Libby was placed on the nation's Superfund list and one year after the EPA declared a public health emergency here, the deadly mineral still lingers in homes, soil and in the lungs of locals. Health officials estimate 400 people have died from asbestos-tainted vermiculite pulled from Libby's Rainy Creek mine since the turn of the 20th century.

Between 1963 and 1990, when W.R. Grace & Co. ran the operation, the company used a 17-acre parcel surrounding what's now Riverfront Park as an export plant to stockpile the mineral before shipping it across the country to be used as garden composting material and insulation in homes.

click to enlarge Ten years into the EPA’s cleanup in Libby, residents are still waiting for a risk assessment measuring  the long-term health risks of exposure to amphibole asbestos. - PHOTO BY YOGESH SIMPSON
  • Photo by Yogesh Simpson
  • Ten years into the EPA’s cleanup in Libby, residents are still waiting for a risk assessment measuring the long-term health risks of exposure to amphibole asbestos.

In June, two concertgoers at Riverside Park discovered vermiculite flakes in a plot of land used for parking adjacent to the venue. Libby residents went ballistic; they knew the mineral was present and say they've unsuccessfully lobbied the EPA since at least 2005 to finish its containment efforts on the weedy patch of land.

"They just ignored it," says Libby resident Gordon Sullivan, who served two years as a technical adviser for the Libby Area Technical Assistance Group (LATAG), which aims to incorporate citizen input into the cleanup discussion.

The Riverside Park discovery highlights just how badly the EPA has botched the cleanup here, Sullivan says. It's also why Libby's newly formed advocacy group, Citizens for a Healthy Community and Environmental Justice, of which Sullivan is a member, voiced its opposition when the EPA announced in May its formal record of decision (ROD), itemizing final plans to remediate two of eight contaminated areas in Libby this fall. The first phase involves removing soil and capping contamination in the 17-acre parcel that includes Riverside Park.

"They're trying to get out of here as fast as they can," says Sullivan.

After so many years of alleged cleanup, residents remain frustrated by visible contamination and, moving forward, the fact that there's still no risk assessment measuring the long-term health risks of exposure to amphibole asbestos, otherwise known as "Libby asbestos." Ultimately, neither residents nor the EPA know what, if any, amount of the mineral is safe. Without that data, Sullivan and others say there's no way of grasping how effective EPA's past and future actions will be—making any ROD premature.

Sullivan claims the agency has cut corners in the past and if it cuts corners now, the long-term effects could be, if imaginable, even more disastrous.

It's not just locals sounding the alarm. Stephen J. Nesbitt from the EPA's Office of Inspector General—an oversight branch within the agency—told a Senate Committee in 2008, "We found that EPA has neither planned nor completed a risk and toxicity assessment of the Libby amphibole asbestos to determine the safe level of human exposure. Thus, EPA could not be sure that the ongoing Libby cleanup is sufficient to prevent humans from contracting asbestos-related diseases."

Weeks after the EPA announced its plans to move ahead with final remediation efforts, members of Montana's congressional delegation contacted the agency seeking assurances EPA is committed to completing the task at hand. Rep. Denny Rehberg wrote in a June 29 letter addressed to the regional director of the EPA's Superfund Remedial Program: "Many in Libby believe their questions haven't been adequately answered, particularly in regards to whether EPA will return to Libby if future evidence reveals that vermiculite exists in areas deemed safe."

The EPA subsequently fenced off the area near Riverside Park where vermiculite was found in June. The agency also responded to Rehberg's letter July 15, stating it will continue reviewing data as it becomes available and remedy future problems as they arise.

EPA Superfund Redevelopment Manager Victor Ketellapper acknowledges questions remain unanswered. But after hauling out 700,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and performing remediation on 1,262 homes, he says the agency is making progress.

"What we don't know is if what we're doing right now is sufficient to be protective of human health for long-term exposure," he says. "And we don't know if what were doing now is going to result in a complete cleanup or if there's some additional cleanup work that we need to do. But we do know what we're doing now is reducing risk, and making the area more protective of human health."

Ketellapper says much of the risk assessment holdup can be attributed to challenges relating to Libby's brand of asbestos.

"This type of research, this type of work, I don't think has been done, particularly at this scale, anywhere before," he says. "There's a lot of new science being done in understanding asbestos exposure."

According to Ketellapper, the agency aims to have a risk assessment available by 2012. The EPA has stated it will not go forward with its final remediation efforts in residential areas without the data.

Residents say every month they go without answers just adds to the disaster.

"I'm getting real tired of driving past Asa Wood Elementary School knowing that there's .038 fibers per cubic centimeter under a swing set and wondering if 372 kids are safe," Sullivan says.

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