Environmental Protection Agency officials met with community members of North Little Rock, Arkansas, on Thursday to discuss the testing for asbestos exposure where a vermiculite processing facility operated for nearly four decades.
The groups discussed the possibility of asbestos exposure from vermiculite that was processed in the Arkansas community. Officials believe the substance originated from Libby, Montana, a city contaminated by asbestos where over 400 people have died from the same exposure.
Vermiculite is a mineral substance that is frequently used as an insulator. In the Libby mine, where North Little Rock’s mineral substance came from, asbestos has been known to mix with vermiculite, posing a significant threat to anyone who is exposed to it.
A Community in Danger
The former North Little Rock processing facility that the EPA is testing operated for 37 years, from 1953 to 1989. Now the local park and residential community may be at risk if asbestos contaminants are found where the old facility used to be.
The community meeting comes at a time when suspicions, ideas and hypotheses are beginning to bubble up. Some residents are worried that some of the deaths of “healthy community members” may be because of asbestos exposure.
“We’ve got a problem. We definitely have a problem,” said Bernadette Conley. She was one of the first residents to arrive at the St. Stephan Baptist Church for the community discussion with the EPA.
“People have died. People that were once healthy and then you look up and all of a sudden they’re gone. We know things happen, we have bad health but sometimes things are unexplainable. I don’t care if it’s two inches. Asbestos causes cancer,” Conley she said.
Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of diseases like malignant mesothelioma cancer, a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs. During the 1960s, scientists and researchers began confirming the link between the mineral and cancer, resulting in the massive reduction of asbestos mining and production.
The EPA wants Arkansas city residents to be aware of the danger that potentially exists. Thursday’s meeting was one of many more steps in the process to test and clean up any potential asbestos that may exist in North Little Rock.
“We’ve found some contamination on site. Some asbestos contamination on site and we found some off site as well,” said Althea Foster of the EPA.
According to local news sources, the EPA will be conducting more tests and obtaining more samples this weekend. Upon finding contaminated soil, proper removal plans will be established. The full extent of required work will not be known until test results are completed.
“We hope and we expect that we will have all the information we need to characterize the site.”
Criticism & Skepticism of the EPA
Despite the EPA’s discussion with local residents, some are still skeptical of the organization’s purpose, motive and actions.
“This being a low economic area, everybody don’t trust the EPA and the people that come out and do the testing. They just don’t trust them,” Conley said.
This skepticism is not only unique to North Little Rock. Residents of Libby have expressed similar concerns recently as reports have surfaced that allege that the EPA had knowledge of contamination in the Montana area and did nothing.
According to a 2011 Associated Press article, the EPA was aware of possible contamination from asbestos-containing wood chips and tree bark that was distributed across the state of Montana for years. The story states that the organization did nothing to stop the tainted products from being transported and used for landscaping across public parks and residences, endangering countless residents.
Libby officials have expressed real criticism of the organization’s ability to handle the clean up and testing of asbestos. In areas where a cleanup has been declared, some residents are reluctant to even let the EPA enter their properties, in fear of cross-contamination. Even some candidates in the presidential election of 2012 have expressed criticism of the department, with some promising to close the agency if elected.
The EPA has spent an estimated $370 million in the past 11 years attempting to clean up the city of Libby. Across the country, sites with known asbestos contaminants have been labeled as a Superfund Site, giving the government funds to ensure a proper and controlled clean up of the site.
For the residents of North Little Rock, this may come with little comfort. If there as contamination, some damage may already have been done.