Risky business 

For local contractors, Libby dirt may hurt

D C Orr worked for W R Grace’s vermiculite mining operation in Libby in the decades before public health officials diagnosed the whole town with asbestos contamination. Since then, he’s run his own general contracting outfit in an area where vermiculite—a type of locally sourced, and asbestos-rich, mineral ore—proves about as common as dirt.

“We do a lot of earth work. I’ve been doing this almost 30 years,” Orr says. “I’m pretty familiar with the stuff.”

Now, with the Delaware corporation bankrupt under the weight of civil action and a few of its bosses facing criminal charges for the wrongful death of hundreds of Libby residents, Orr would like to do what many townsfolk are doing and put the contamination issues behind him. But, as a contractor, he says he runs into the carcinogenic material all day, despite the seven-year-old cleanup efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“I have a 100 percent success rate of finding vermiculite at EPA cleaned properties,” Orr claims. He adds he’s had a hard time gaining the attention of EPA officials resistant to the notion their cleanup efforts have failed. “Because of my background, because what I do, I know when they’re lying to us.”

Whatever disagreements the EPA has with Orr on specifics—and there are many—agency specialists agree there is a hazard, and it’s dirt. Asbestos fibers only present a risk when disturbed, which poses a problem when your job is moving or working in earth.

“Outdoor exposures are going to be the big risk drivers out here,” says EPA project manager Paul Peronard. “The people who you worry about are the carpenters, electricians and tradesmen.”

Although no specific scientific findings yet exist to set Libby’s unique strain of asbestos apart from others, the death toll alone has toxicologists drawing the obvious line to cancer and vascular disease. Much of the EPA’s focus over the past seven years aimed to clean vermiculite-based Zonolite insulation from homes, but the seemingly relentless reports of contaminate popping and re-popping up in yards is prompting a shift in strategy. “We need to look to more expansive yard cleanups,” Peronard says.

Because of its availability and range of uses, the substance once heralded as a construction wonder material—like soy for contractors—is literally everywhere. Consequently, Orr says, the emergence of large amounts of vermiculite should come as no surprise. What might prove surprising is the amount of the stuff that the EPA could simply miss in its cleanup efforts.

Just before Independence Day, cleanup workers alerted the agency to the presence of a strip-like pile of vermiculite ore half the length of a football field near the town’s riverfront park. According to engineer Mike Cirian, some of the flakes were “silver-dollar-sized.” Restoration contractors, under EPA supervision, had cleaned the park at least three times.

The sheer volume of contaminate led a few agency officials to speculate that someone planted the ore with a bucket and a truck.

But Orr shares an alternative theory. The contractor suspects the ore might have found its way to the surface during the digging of a cable trough through the park—formerly a W.R. Grace export plant—in June 2007. “It’s altogether possible that stuff has been sitting down there for 13 months,” he says. “They said it was 6-8 inches wide and 50 yards long—sounds like a cable plow to me.”

The EPA’s Cirian asserts the cable dig occurred in a different area of the riverfront. The engineer says he’s got a few theories as to how such a large amount of vermiculite found its way to the park, but declined to elaborate. Both the EPA and city police are conducting investigations.

Yet, while blame for the riverfront debacle seeks a host, finding a culprit offers no relief. Laborers who spend their days working in Libby dirt—from the workers of the major restoration firms earning EPA coin to smaller private contractors—face risk factors largely unchanged since the story blew up in 1999.

Earlier this year, the agency released figures from a series of tests conducted at the Cabinet View Country Club over previous summers. Personal monitors on greenskeepers tracked airborne asbestos exposure during routine work tasks. Data tables furnished by the EPA show hits almost across the board. Interpreting the readings from a risk standpoint, Peronard estimates that the course’s seasonal laborers face asbestos dangers roughly two orders of magnitude—100 times—greater than most Libby residents.

“You’re probably right at the unacceptable level of risk for maintenance workers,” Peronard responds when asked why the EPA never closed the course, which hosts roughly 15,000 rounds a year. “We provided the data to the golf course and they’re taking steps to mitigate. But we aren’t telling people you can’t live in your yards either.”

Cabinet View president Wayne Haines did not respond to requests for comment.

Just off the main drag of Mineral Avenue, the Center for Asbestos Related Disease studies respiratory conditions while providing treatment for sufferers in Libby. Clinical Coordinator Kimberly Rowse explains they don’t have data yet to show a high risk among laborers and tradesmen, but the situation speaks for itself.

“It’s a huge risk for this industry,” she says. “One of the most challenging things is we have a latency period for this disease for 10 to 20—to even 40 years. They may be exposed now but not even be consciously aware of it.”

In part to get a better gauge on the environmental risk, the EPA recently introduced a new kind of sampling that tests the air while mimicking everyday tasks. Peronard reports the data is just filtering in now. Many in Libby anxiously await the results, which, as Orr points out, should give residents a decent idea about the dangers of, say, vacuuming a carpet in Libby. But laying cable? Not so much.

“I think the people working the cleanup are very much at risk,” he says. “They’re stirring up 100 years worth of contamination in 10 years.”
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