The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this month announced its final remedial plans for the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site, bringing closure to the largest, longest-running asbestos cleanup project in American history.
The EPA project began almost 17 years ago in Montana, stemming from seven decades of vermiculite mining that led to toxic asbestos contamination throughout Libby and nearby Troy.
Health officials believe the mines killed more than 400 Libby residents and sickened an estimated 3,000. Exposure to asbestos can lead to several serious illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The latency period between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma is 20-50 years.
The cleanup price has exceeded $540 million and is expected to cost another $64 million before it is finished in 2018. The W.R. Grace & Company, which operated the mines from 1963 to 1990, was forced to pay $250 million toward the cleanup project.
“This announcement sheds some light on the final steps of the project,” Nick Raines, manager of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resources Program, told Asbestos.com. “It’s a big milestone for both the EPA and the community. It’s a step toward wrapping things up.”
The EPA has investigated or cleaned more than 7,100 properties and expects to finish another 700 before completion. According to an EPA Risk Assessment report, officials removed more than a million cubic yards of building material and dirt from properties throughout the area to reduce future exposure.
Despite the EPA’s efforts, asbestos deposits will remain in the soil and within the walls of homes containing vermiculite insulation, also known by the brand name Zonolite.
“We know with great certainty, that we will be leaving some contamination behind where it doesn’t pose risk of exposure,” EPA project manager Rebecca Thomas said.
Under the final plan released last week, the EPA will:
Once the EPA finishes its work, Montana state officials will be responsible for all costs related to future operations and maintenance of mine sites, as well as 10 percent of future cleanup costs.
The Libby site first attracted national attention in the 1990s after media reports of an unusual number of deaths and illnesses attributed to vermiculite mining.
Vermiculite is used in a variety of construction materials, including insulation, and toxic asbestos fibers usually contaminate the mineral.
The public outcry over health issues, the documented callousness of W.R. Grace & Company and a growing stream of asbestos-related lawsuits prompted the EPA’s arrival in 1999.
It wasn’t just the miners, either, who developed asbestos-related diseases. The asbestos dust from the processing plant traveled for miles through the air, threatening the entire community. Over the years, W.R. Grace & Company also had distributed leftover vermiculite for use in playgrounds, backyards, baseball fields and gardens.
The EPA placed Libby on the National Priorities List in 2002, earning the Superfund site designation. That distinction will be removed in the coming years. Although the health issues in Libby will continue because of the long latency period, the threat of new asbestos exposure has dropped significantly.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel now,” Raines said. “I think this shows that past cleanup efforts have been effective in reducing or minimizing exposure to asbestos. I think the area now is as safe a place to live, work and play, as any rural area in the country.”