EPA Leaving Libby After Massive Asbestos Cleanup

Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Mike Cirian came to Libby, Montana, in 2005 to lead the largest asbestos cleanup project in American history, a decontamination effort of unprecedented proportion.

He never left.

Cirian helped turn a dark, deadly past into a much brighter, celebrated future.

As manager of the EPA’s asbestos Superfund site ­– stemming from the massive asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine that killed hundreds and sickened thousands – Cirian is nearing the end of his role.

On July 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially transferred oversight and responsibility for much of the sprawling project to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, signaling another step forward in the transformation.

“We did a lot of really good things here, made this area a wonderful place to live, work and play – without worry,” Cirian told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “We got the job done. Now it’s time to let it go, which will be hard, because of all we’ve put into it.”

Libby Mine Site Still Under EPA Oversight

Libby, the self-proclaimed City of Eagles, is ready for flight once again.

The EPA will remain in control of the actual mine site – the root of the longest-running, manmade environmental disaster in U.S. history – but all other commercial and residential areas in Libby and nearby Troy have been cleared.

It wasn’t easy.

Although the W.R. Grace & Co. mine was closed 30 years ago, the operation spread toxic asbestos dust throughout the region for more than 50 years, sickening miners and nearby residents.

This led to a federal public health emergency and the Superfund declaration that put it on the National Priorities List.

The cleanup numbers have been staggering.

More than a million cubic yards of dirt and building materials from 3,000 different properties throughout Lincoln County were removed and replaced.

Businesses, yards, homes and public parks were fixed. The EPA inspected 8,200 area properties. More than $600 million of federal money was spent to turn the area back into a picturesque, inviting place to be, a product of EPA efforts.

The northwest Montana area that was once doused with asbestos dust now beckons visitors again with open arms, touting the beauty of crystalline waters and nearby majestic mountains.

“In my career field, you usually finish a job, then move to the next one,” Cirian said. “I’m glad I’m ending my career here. I’ll be retiring soon – and staying here. We did something that no one ever had done before.”

Asbestos Legacy Will Linger in Libby

Unfortunately, the legacy of asbestos in Montana will linger in the shadows for many years, making this EPA handoff bittersweet. Although most of the asbestos is gone – and what remains is out of reach – the effects will be felt for decades to come.

Asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer, can take 20 to 50 years to develop after initial exposure. Health officials have documented more than 400 deaths attributed to asbestos exposure in the Libby area, but that number likely will continue to grow.

Another 2,400 people, either former or current area residents, have been diagnosed with health issues at the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease Clinic in Libby during this cleanup period.

Lincoln County remains home to the highest asbestos-related mortality rate in America.

The state now will be responsible for any new discoveries of asbestos, which are expected during any excavation work. The estimated annual cost is $600,000 to $700,000.

Libby Is Thriving Once Again

The EPA is leaving the state with an Institutional Control Implementation and Assurance Plan to serve as a guide for containment of any asbestos still left behind. The EPA will review the effectiveness every five years.

Cirian, meanwhile, will remain in place for another year before he retires, overseeing the final remediation plans for the actual mine site.

He and his wife raised their family in the area, becoming ingrained in the community. His children went to school there. The grandkids already are coming back to visit, a sign of confidence in a job well done.

Throughout the past 15 years, Cirian planted deep roots. He was active in his church. He became the godfather to neighboring children. He helps manage the local gun club. He coaches the youth trap shooting team.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride here, some very emotional times,” Cirian said. “I’ve cried, sweated and bled over this site. We did a lot of good. And I plan to stay here.”

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