The Environmental Protection Agency says the picturesque mountain town of Libby, Montana — once contaminated by deadly asbestos — is safe again for residents.
After 15 years of asbestos cleanup, the federal agency released its long-delayed health assessment in December 2014, stating that while it’s impossible to remove all asbestos from Libby and nearby Troy, “air asbestos concentrations today are up to 100,000 times lower than when the [asbestos] mine and processing facilities were operating.”
“Our risk assessment shows that EPA’s indoor and outdoor cleanups have been effective in reducing both cancer and non-cancer risks in Libby and Troy,” an EPA summary report shows. “This means that EPA’s cleanup work results in acceptable risk levels.”
Health experts estimate more than 400 people in Libby and nearby Troy have died of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases stemming from asbestos contamination in the area’s mining industry.
While the Superfund cleanup at Libby continues, the EPA will hold meetings over the next few months to explain the 328-page report, field comments from the public and issue a plan for cleanup. Senior toxicologist Dr. Deborah McKean said final cleanup details will be announced in mid-2015.
Rebecca Thomas, EPA project manager for the Libby Asbestos Project said, Libby residents have been briefed on the draft and we are making every effort to finalize as soon as possible.
In 2002, the EPA declared Libby a Superfund site, a title given to abandoned hazardous waste sites in need of immediate remediation. It is the largest Superfund site in U.S. history.
The EPA already has cleaned more than 2,000 residences, businesses and other buildings and properties across Libby and Troy, including schools and school yards.
But as mentioned in the report, complete removal of the Libby amphibole asbestos is impossible, especially when it comes to environmental asbestos. The report shows risk factors for higher exposures in Libby include:
- Activities near the vermiculite mine
- Hiking along Rainy Creek
- Renovating homes containing vermiculite insulation
- Logging activities near the mine
- Handling ashes produced from burned wood collected near the mine
In 2011, the EPA released a toxicity draft confirming that cleanup efforts had reduced airborne asbestos concentrations below agency targets.
To date, the EPA has invested more than $56 million in the effort to clean the Libby Superfund site.
History of Asbestos Exposure in Libby
Vermiculite mining began in Libby in 1919.
W.R. Grace & Co. purchased the vermiculite mine in 1963 to produce fireproofing products, cement insulation and other items. The mine closed in 1990.
During that nearly 30-year period, company officials knew the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. They also were aware of the hazardous health effects of asbestos, but didn’t warn workers.
Asbestos causes mesothelioma, a rare cancer that is usually diagnosed 50 years after exposure. Average life expectancy is 12 to 21 months, but there are some breakthrough treatments that are helping those diagnosed live several years beyond their prognosis.
The contaminated products, such as insulation sold under the brand name Zonolite, were shipped across the country where it ended in homes and other buildings. Some estimates show more than 35 million homes still may contain the asbestos-tainted products.
More than half of Libby’s 3,000 residents were affected by the deadly asbestos.
In 2011, a Montana district court judge approved a $43 million settlement with more than 1,300 plaintiffs regarding the contamination of vermiculite mines in Libby. That settlement stems from close to 200 lawsuits filed a decade ago.
A Change of Image in Libby
These days, Libby is trying to overcome its notoriety as a poisoned town.
We’re trying to get out from underneath this cloud and start promoting Libby as a place you can come and visit and not worry about the air quality,” Libby Mayor Doug Roll told the Associated Press.
Completing the cleanup efforts, that will return Libby to a scenic tourist destination, may take about five years.