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EPA Doing Risk Study On Mining Town After Decades Of Asbestos Exposure

The town of Libby, Montana, is in the midst of cleaning up from decades of asbestos exposure at the hands of the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine. In Libby and its surrounding land, hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure and many more have been sickened. The cleanup has been going on since 1999, at a cost over $447 million so far. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to finish its risk study to guide the cleanup by late 2014; a group of scientists supported findings that even trace amounts of asbestos dust can lead to lung problems. The EPA is using the condition of lung scarring to decide how much asbestos exposure poses a health risk.

The EPA’s study will ascertain when it’s safe to stop the cleanup; the agency’s next step is to do the work advised by its Science Advisory Board—a panel of outside scientists that reviewed the agency’s preliminary findings for more than a year. The EPA’s project manager, Rebecca Thomas, says between eighty and one hundred properties in Libby will be worked on this year; work on the actual mine, which sits outside of the town, has barely begun. Several hundred properties around Libby are still waiting to be evaluated, and that number could increase, depending on the results of the EPA’s study.

The mine was closed in 1990; vermiculite mined there was sent to dozens of receiving and processing sites around the U.S.–these places may also be impacted by the EPA’s study. From these site, the vermiculite was used to insulate millions of American homes. The mine is still the responsibility of its owner, W.R. Grace, which has criticized the EPA’s proposed new standards—0.00002 fibers of asbestos mineral per cubic centimeter—as unjustified. In 2009, Libby was declared a public health emergency by the EPA; asbestos-related deaths are projected to continue there for decades. Asbestos-related diseases can lie dormant for many years, and when they do surface, as horrible cancers, they progress very rapidly.

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