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Cleanup Plan Approved For Libby Superfund Site

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a $540 million cleanup plan for the Libby Asbestos Superfund site on Monday. Even with the plan, community members are still concerned about future asbestos discoveries.

Asbestos remains in many houses in Libby as well as in the ground. Plus, approximately 700 properties still need to be investigated for contamination, so it’s currently uncertain as to whether they pose a health risk. Asbestos exposure can led to a range of health problems, including the fatal mesothelioma cancer.

Many still wonder about the protocols for when more asbestos is found in the future, which the EPA has agreed to, but yet not solidified the steps. EPA officials plan to work with community leaders, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and others to create these “institutional controls.”

“That’s the biggest concern,” said Jeni Flatow of the Montana DEQ. “How do we handle it when we come across it? If we’re digging utility lines and come across it, what are the protocols for protecting human health?”

W.R. Grace Company was the cause of Libby becoming an asbestos superfund site. The company was well-known for illegally dumping industrial waste containing large amounts of asbestos at several of their facilities in Libby.

So much so that the EPA included Libby as part of the Superfund Cleanup Plan of 1980 to address the immediate need for cleaning and securing the most dangerously polluted areas in the U.S.

Then a public health emergency was declared in 2009 due to the increasingly large amount of asbestos-related health problems occurring in Libby. This was a historical moment because a public health emergency was never before related to a Superfund site.

W.R. Grace settled with paying the EPA $250 million for cleanup in 2008, but the government has spent over twice that—and the cleanup should last two to three more years.

More specifically, since the early 2000s, $540 million has been spent by the U.S. government to remove more than a million cubic yards of dirt and contaminated building materials from over 2,000 Libby and nearby Troy properties. Fortunately, an EPA risk assessment last year found this removal had significantly reduced asbestos exposure.

Cleanup in the town of Libby has begun, yet the mine site and wooded areas of the surrounding Kootenai National Forest has not. According to the EPA, the latter will be part of a different cleanup plan.