Asbestos Exposure & Bans

EPA Leaving Libby Asbestos Superfund Site to Montana

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Written By: Tim Povtak, Last modified: January 5, 2021
Welcome sign in Libby, Montana

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is leaving the Libby Asbestos Superfund site, but that doesn’t mean the job is finished.

It’s just changing hands.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality will assume the oversight role of the Superfund site, which was part of the longest-running, man-made environmental disaster in American history.

The EPA spent almost two decades decontaminating Libby and nearby Troy, Montana, a massive project stemming from the vermiculite mine operation that once spread asbestos dust throughout the region, sickening both miners and residents throughout Lincoln County.

More than 400 people in the area have died from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Thousands more are sick.

EPA officials recently released the agency’s Institutional Control Implementation and Assurance Plan, which will serve as a guide for the state to contain the asbestos left behind in homes, businesses and the ground.

EPA Will Review Every Five Years

The EPA will be required to review the effectiveness of those controls every five years, under the plan.

“For this particular site, where we do have what we call ‘waste left in place,’ we are projecting out at least 30 years,” Lisa DeWitt, project manager of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Oversight Committee for the Department of Environmental Quality, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “Pretty much in perpetuity.”

Since Libby and the surrounding area was placed on the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 2002, more than $600 million in federal funds has been spent on the project.

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

The prevalence of asbestos building materials, in homes and businesses, though, made it impossible to remove all traces of the toxic mineral. It remains in the walls and even underground.

Experts have said repeatedly that asbestos is not a threat when left undisturbed.

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State Will Work Closely with Property Owners

The Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with handling any future problems that may arise.

The EPA plan outlines the responsibilities for the state and the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program. The plan includes maintaining a database of properties that were not inspected as part of the cleanup efforts. Residents were not required to participate.

Officials will work with property owners remodeling their homes or businesses that may have asbestos products.

The plan also will enforce local ordinances that now require property owners to work with the county and state officials in disposing of any asbestos waste. They will be required to contact the county before landscaping, excavating or doing exterior or interior demolition.

Libby Asbestos Is Unique

Health officials have documented more than 400 deaths in the county that were attributed to Libby’s amphibole asbestos, which can cause a different type of deadly disease, beyond mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer.

Thousands more in the area have been sickened by asbestos-related diseases throughout the EPA’s cleanup period.

Although the mine was closed in 1990, health officials still predict the steady stream of patients with asbestos-related problems to continue.

The latency period between the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos and disease confirmation can be decades. It can take 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before mesothelioma is diagnosed.

In recent years, an estimated 800 residents are screened annually at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, a nonprofit medical clinic in Libby. Of those, health officials say 25% have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition.

“Conservative estimates put us out until 2030, so [the problem)] won’t go away for a while,” Dr. Brad Black, center director, told the Flathead Beacon. “Those are conservative estimates. It’s really hard to predict how many sick people we’re going to see, but it’s going to be a lot.”

While the EPA will be transferring oversight of the Libby and Troy residential and commercial areas, the mine area just north of Libby will remain under EPA control.

“The Superfund project is a long process. To move to this next phase is a real positive. I think the residents are ready to put the stigma behind them,” Brian Walker, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “Anytime there is more local control, it gets down to residents, and that’s a positive.”

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