Messed-up cleanup 

In its April 27 issue, the Independent ran a story with a headline asking, “How clean was the cleanup?” in reference to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remediation work in asbestos-contaminated Libby.

The answer we got last week, at least according to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, is not very.

On June 5, a city utility crew digging a trench for a water line to irrigate Libby’s new Asbestos Victims Memorial discovered a bed of vermiculite—the mineral that contains asbestos—3 feet wide and 20 feet long sitting 18 inches below the soil.

The site, which W.R. Grace used as a staging area to bag and ship vermiculite mined just outside of Libby, had been cleaned by W.R. Grace and inspected by the EPA, and later cleaned again by the EPA.

Libby resident Gordon Sullivan, a critic of the EPA’s cleanup and former consultant paid by the EPA to act as a community liason, says this recent discovery means all of the agency’s work should be contested.

“It’s an indication that the whole sampling process is in question,” he says.

In other words, the revelation that the site was twice tested by the EPA and still unsafe makes Sullivan wonder if Libby residents should trust other tests which deem their living area clean, or air monitoring that show the town is asbestos-free.

James Pendleton, a spokesman for Burns, says that these exact concerns are what led the senator to call for an independent investigation into the EPA’s work in Libby.

“If someone says an area is clean and 18 inches below the soil we discover a bed of vermiculite, it raises very serious questions about the cleanup process,” says Pendleton.

But Peggy Churchill, project manager for Libby’s EPA cleanup, counters that, “Our goal is not to remove every piece of contamination.”

Instead, she says, EPA workers sample the surface, and, if contamination is found, they then remove it. “In all likelihood we sampled on the surface and there was no contamination found,” she says.

If and when the independent investigation occurs, it will determine whether that explanation holds water.

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