Libby, Montana - By all accounts, Libby, Montana is a city that has been through the proverbial wringer. Once home to the W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine and processing plant, its biggest claim to fame is the distinction it has of being the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in the country.
Due to the presence of asbestos in the vermiculite mined there by the company, famous for its Zonolite insulation, more than 400 Libby area residents have died of mesothelioma and other related diseases and some 1,700 have been sickened by asbestos exposure. In this town near the Canadian border, the legacy of asbestos is one that residents wish to put behind them, and the opening of the new Riverfront Park and its use for weddings, picnics, and small town festivals is one way of putting the past behind, local officials say.
In an article published in The Spokesman-Review, Mayor Doug Roll says the transfer of the park lands from the federal government to the town was symbolic of breaking away from “a lethal past.”
“It’s sort of like (a) phoenix rising from the ashes,” Roll said. “We’ve had a lot of negative stuff going on and we’re trying to turn that around.”
To date, notes the article, more than one million cubic yards of contaminated soil and other material have been removed from the town of Libby. The cost of the work has topped $447 million. And the EPA isn’t finished yet.
Add to that the fact that the asbestos may never truly be totally gone and its easy to understand why locals are still worried. The article points out that federal regulators note that some of the dangerous material still remains, simply because there was so much of it and it is so difficult to be sure all of it has been removed. That’s why anyone who digs into the clean soil of the park will find an orange barrier about 18 inches below the surface, noting that the digger could be facing further exposure to the toxic mineral.
Furthermore, no one knows when the clean-up will be complete in Libby, M ontana because the EPA has yet to determine safe levels of exposure. That means homes and businesses that are now deemed “clean” might face more work if it’s determined that levels are still too high in those areas.
Local activists also claim that in a rush to make things safer, the EPA is cross-contaminating the town. For example, it is alleged that contractors pulled up steel parking barriers at the park earlier this year, not knowing that they were made of pipe used by W.R. Grace to transport vermiculite, re-contaminating the site.
While officials admit that hazards still exist, EPA’s Libby team leader, Victor Ketellapper said the air in Libby is “orders of magnitude” cleaner than it once was, noting that air quality tests rarely detect the presence of asbestos these days.