Libby, Montana - A move by the Environmental Protection Agency towards a more rigorous clean-up of asbestos-contaminated Libby, Montana and places like it is a move for which environmental advocates have long been waiting, but companies like W.R. Grace, who caused the disaster in the small Montana town, fear the new rubric will force expensive clean-ups in various effected sites across the country.
According to an article by the Associated Press, the new EPA-proposed rules for clean-up of sites like Libby would be “5,000 times tougher than the standard used in past cleanups addressing airborne asbestos.” W.R. Grace and Co., which long operated an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine in the town, is pushing back, and representatives from the company met with the EPA last week to state their objections to the plan, which is so severe as to insinuate that even miniscule amounts of asbestos can cause serious diseases, like mesothelioma. Many doctors agree with that premise.
“In many respects it would be like banning it, getting it so low,” said former assistant U.S. Surgeon General Richard Lemen, currently of Emory University in Atlanta. “EPA is being realistic and saying, ‘Look, we know there's asbestos out there and we're not going to get rid of all of it, but let's put our concentration as low as we possibly can.’”
Under the new plan, airborne asbestos concentrations exceeding two-100,000ths of a fiber per cubic centimeter would be considered a health risk. The Government Accountability Office says the new rules would impact the clean-up of more than 200 sites in 40 states that are also contaminated due to Libby-produced asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. Representatives from Grace say they believe the plan is too extreme.
“That broad application will, in turn, result in enormous, unexpected and unnecessary costs to building owners, farmers and other property holders, including the federal government,” said Karen Ethier, W. R. Grace Vice President.
Even the White House Office of Management and Budget has questioned the EPA proposal, but individuals who have worked towards a ban on asbestos or have supported victims of asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma say “it’s about time.” Furthermore, this EPA proposal, for the first time, doesn’t just set a risk level for cancer but also for non-cancer illnesses, such as the debilitating lung disease known as asbestosis.
Local Libby-ites who have been deeply affected by the presence of the toxic mineral – nearly 1,800 miners, area residents, and others have already died of asbestos-related diseases – support the EPA’s new stringent guidelines. Many medical professionals agree with them as well, and don’t understand why Grace, who many say knew of the dangers of the vermiculite in their mine several decades ago, should even have a part in such decisions.
“I don't even see why Grace gets a say in this matter. They're the ones that caused this disaster,” said Arthur Frank, an occupational physician and professor at Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. “The situation in Libby specifically shows that minimal pleural disease carries with it significant physiological changes in the lungs.”
The EPA will make their final decision on the clean-up sometime early next year.