Too little, too late 

EPA releases Libby’s long-sought “Rumple Report”

The government last week released a damning memorandum detailing the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inadequate cleanup of asbestos in Libby, three years after the Independent first submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the document.

The memo, written by Special Agent Cory Rumple in 2006 and known as the “Rumple Report,” summarizes the findings of an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation into the EPA’s cleanup. The memo made OIG—but no one else—aware of infighting within the EPA, a disconnect between scientific evidence and cleanup procedures, and “unconscionable” documents distributed to Libby residents that assured safe levels of asbestos exposure.

At least 200 deaths and thousands of illnesses have been related to exposure to asbestos unearthed from the vermiculite mine that operated in Libby for decades. The EPA came to Libby nearly 10 years ago to begin cleanup.

“The purpose in writing it was so that another OIG authority, which I thought would be the Office of Program Evaluation, could pick up where I left off and possibly report the situation to the Agency quickly,” Rumple wrote in an explanation of his memo. “I believed time was of the essence, as the Agency appeared to be heading down the same road it did with the 9/11 fallout. I felt the memo would start a non-criminal review which might slow down what I perceived to be a rush to a Record of Decision and possible future illnesses and deaths in Libby.”

OIG buried the Rumple Report, first telling the Independent in August 2006 that it did not exist, and later stating it was FOIA-exempt. Former Independent reporter Paul Peters confirmed the report’s existence by interviewing EPA scientists also interviewed during Rumple’s investigation.

The document’s April 28 release came a week after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit to obtain it. OIG chose not to contest the suit because of the new “presumption of openness” FOIA guidelines handed down by the Obama administration and formalized by Attorney General Eric Holder in March.

The Rumple Report paints a clear picture of the deficiencies of the Libby cleanup, specifically the lack of toxicity studies needed to establish safe and acceptable levels of exposure—which, to this day, still haven’t been completed.

“It’s a three-year-old report now, but nothing has really changed,” says Dr. Gerry Henningsen, former EPA senior toxicologist and technical advisor to the agency’s Technical Advisory Group. “That’s the important thing. They have the settlement for money, but they have no meaningful additional data on the science of the relative toxicity of this material and an exposure assessment of this material.”

Rumple’s investigation was triggered by allegations that EPA contractors improperly cleaned Libby homes by wetting down carpets, ensuring monitors would find temporarily safe levels of asbestos. “This in turn would allow the contractors to move on to the next house, and allow them to be paid for a house deemed ‘clean’ of asbestos fibers,” he wrote.

Rumple found isolated wet carpet incidents, but uncovered other problems in his report.

“When I went to Libby, MT, to speak with individuals about this situation,” he wrote, “they wanted to talk about the documents that EPA had disseminated during the cleanup and the lack of a risk assessment associated with the cleanup.”

Two documents handed out by the EPA—“Living with Vermiculite” and another referred to by Libby residents as the “comfort letter”—were described by EPA scientists interviewed by Rumple as “exceptionally deceiving,” “unconscionable,” “premature,” “totally disingenuous” and containing “double speak.” One toxicologist described the “Living with Vermiculite” document as “a misrepresentation of the current scientific knowledge surrounding Libby-amphibole asbestos.”

The vermiculite document read, in part: “Even though contacting or working near vermiculite or other asbestos-containing materials can release asbestos fibers into the air, if such exposures are infrequent or for short durations, they will not likely significantly increase your risk of health effects, especially if common-sense precautions are taken.”

Rumple found a criminal investigation unwarranted, instead suggesting an assessment by the Office of Program Evaluation. But OIG began a 21-month criminal investigation anyway, which ended with federal prosecutors deciding not to take up the case. The probe inexplicably neglected the scientific studies Rumple suggested, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

“Infighting, pettiness, turf wars—none of that stuff is criminal,” says Ruch, “even though it may have monstrous consequences in terms of people getting sick and dying…That opportunity was pissed away, and the criminal investigation resulted in nothing.”

Perhaps the most significant implication of the memo being concealed, according to Henningsen, is that the critical information contained in it could not influence last year’s $250 million settlement with W.R. Grace, the company that operated the mine between 1963 and 1990. (Three former Grace executives are currently on trial in Missoula for allegations they knowingly exposed Libby residents to asbestos.) Henningsen calls the 2008 monetary settlement, which largely reimbursed the government for past cleanup costs, “grossly inadequate.”

“In a criminal court I think this would be the same as one side withholding key evidence and not disclosing all information before you go to trial and make a decision,” Henningsen says. “That would be grounds for nullifying and voiding that settlement, or at least opening up negotiations to revisit, perhaps, a new amended settlement.”

How that can happen, though, is unclear.

“I’m not sure how that would be reopened,” says Ruch. “Certainly W.R. Grace would contend that a deal is a deal. And it did not sound from the Rumple Report like the company misled EPA. If anything, EPA deluded itself, which is no grounds for rescinding the contract.

“I think the ball is in the court of the Montana congressional delegation,” Ruch adds. “Certainly the question of what is the status of the cleanup now after all this time and money, and whether or not more money is needed, is going to be a question for Congress.”
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