Asbestos Exposure & Bans

EPA Removes Part of Libby Asbestos Cleanup from Superfund List

Written By:
April 16, 2019
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
April 16, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deleted a 45-acre portion of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site from the National Priorities List.

The EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have agreed that institutional controls to prevent any future exposure to asbestos in the area were satisfied.

It’s a step closer to finishing the decontamination of the longest-running, man-made environmental disaster in American history.

The sprawling Superfund site, which was placed on the National Priorities List in 2002, was originally divided into eight operable units. The units were based upon the extent of contamination and complexity of cleanup needed.

Operable Unit 2 last week was the first of the eight removed. All but one other operable unit — the actual mine site — are expected to follow soon.

“This is a huge step,” Mike Cirian, EPA remedial project manager, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “To see this now, to know we’ve made this a safer place to live, a place I’m happy to have my grandkids come, is big.”

Vermiculite Mining for 70 Years

The Superfund site was created because of high levels of amphibole asbestos throughout the communities of Libby and nearby Troy, in northwest Montana.

The contamination stemmed from the massive W.R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine operation that once spread asbestos dust throughout the region, sickening miners and nearby residents who never worked there.

The mine closed in 1990 after almost 70 years of operation.

Once the lifeblood of the area — sparking a thriving economy with thousands of high-paying jobs — the mine also became a killer.

Health officials have documented more than 400 deaths linked to asbestos-related diseases such as malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

Throughout the cleanup period, more than 3,000 people in the area have been sickened by asbestos.

Libby Cleanup Was Costly

The cleanup project has cost federal taxpayers more than $600 million.

It included the removal of more than a million cubic yards of dirt and building materials from more than 3,000 different properties.

The EPA inspected more than 8,200 area properties in the last two decades.

Operable Unit 2 included the processing plant that was used to screen vermiculite for asbestos contamination after mining.

Despite the removal, the operable unit still will be subject to maintenance activities and regular reviews for protectiveness.

The inspection and cleanup of commercial and residential properties in Libby was completed in late 2018. Those operable units still need assessment before they can be deleted from the National Priorities List.

“When you talk to people, you know these have been very emotional times,” said Cirian, who has worked at Libby with the EPA since 2005. “I’ve cried, sweated and bled over this site. This has been so important for Libby and the state of Montana.”

The cleanup portion of the process has been completed in seven of the eight operable units, leaving only the mine site to be finished.

The next public meeting to review the final stages of cleanup and receive updates on upcoming deletions is scheduled for April 24 in Libby.

In 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will replace the EPA in managing the Superfund site.

Although much of the asbestos has been removed in Libby, the effects of the toxic mineral will linger for many years.

Asbestos-related diseases can take up to 50 years to develop after the initial exposure.

Lincoln County still has the highest, per capita asbestos-disease mortality rate in the country.

The Center for Asbestos-Related Disease clinic in Libby, which first opened in 2000, treats thousands of patients each year.

It averages more than 30 new patients each month.

“The deletion of these properties from the Superfund list reflects the progress EPA and our partners continue to make in cleaning up and restoring properties in Libby,” acting EPA Regional Administrator Deb Thomas said in a press release.

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