The chips are down

W.R. Grace's vermiculite mine did a number on the Libby community. Asbestos-related diseases have claimed hundreds of lives and left over a thousand more people ill. The town itself is widely considered the nation's most dangerous Superfund site.

This spring, news broke that the damage may be even more widespread. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that a pile of wood chips commonly used by locals for landscaping tested positive for trace amounts of asbestos. What's worse, the EPA has known about the potential for exposure for years and did nothing to stop the use of the chips at park, at schools and in backyards.

Rep. Denny Rehberg chastised the EPA last week for shirking its responsibility in assessing the wood chips. "The folks in Libby want to put the asbestos mess behind them, but they can't do that while they are waiting for the EPA to do its job," the Congressman said. "They want answers, and so do I."

In Libby, however, the reaction wasn't nearly so hostile. "We get these [scares] about every six months or so, and people are just pretty much desensitized to it, I'm afraid," says Libby city councilman D.C. Orr.

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Orr first heard rumors about the potential contamination back in February. He pressed the EPA for more definitive data on the level of asbestos in the chips, but found the agency unresponsive. "They hid from the issue," he says. "That raises more red flags than if they'd lied to us."

The EPA still hasn't taken a stance on the dangers posed by the wood chips. The AP report revealed that only four in 20 samples showed traces of asbestos. But Orr says the newly constructed Lincoln County Credit Union—which used the chips for landscaping—wasn't taking any chances. The bank vacuumed up the chips this spring, replacing them with rocks.

"They're beautiful material, and consequently everybody in the neighborhood's used them," Orr says.

Orr placed chips under his maple trees, in his flowerbeds, even beneath his grandkids' swing set. "I would still like to buy the stuff and use it because it's such great stuff," Orr says. "But the EPA has to give us some definitive scientific analysis before I'm going to use any more of it."

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