EPA Removes Another Section of Libby Superfund Site From Its National Priority List

Picture of train and train track, representing the site removed from the EPA's NPL that contains railroad and rail yards

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has delivered an update on Libby, Montana. In August 2022, it removed another section of the Libby Superfund site from its National Priorities List (NPL).

Libby is the site of a vermiculite mine that exposed residents to asbestos. Hundreds of residents in the Libby area have died from asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma. In 2002, the EPA placed the Libby Superfund site on the NPL.

The EPA puts a Superfund site on the National Priorities List if the hazardous substances at the site pose a certain level of risk to humans. The agency may remove a site from the list after appropriate remedial action.

Half of Libby’s Contaminated Units Now Off the National Priorities List

The EPA divided the Libby Superfund site into eight sections called “operable units.” The agency has spent years cleaning up these units. They have also performed home inspections for Libby residents. With the most recent removal, half of Libby’s operable units are now off the NPL. The EPA has cleaned all but one unit, meaning it is currently evaluating three others for deletion from the list.

How Does the EPA Decide to Delete Superfund Sites From the NPL?

When the EPA finishes cleaning a site, it then considers it for deletion from the NPL. The EPA may do so in one of three ways:

  • It determines that all parties have taken all appropriate actions to clean up the site.
  • It determines the site conforms with the appropriate hazardous substance regulations.
  • It develops a study on the site’s threat to the environment and human health. If it no longer poses a significant threat, it may decide that no more cleanup is necessary.

The unit most recently removed from the NPL is operable unit six. This announcement comes four years after the EPA finished cleaning the area.

Operable unit six encompasses a 42-mile stretch of rail line and rail yards. In the past, the rail line was used to transport asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the mine.

The EPA will continue to be involved in the unit even though it is off the NPL. Among other things, the EPA will:

  • Assist Montana state officials with annual inspection reports
  • Conduct five-year reviews

Sites deleted from the NPL are also still eligible for EPA funding if it turns out further cleanup is needed.

BNSF Railway will take over day-to-day management of the unit.

Railroad Company Placed in Charge of Future Management of Section

BNSF Railway transported asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the Libby mine, owned by W.R. Grace. A 2020 settlement placed them in charge of managing operable unit six. The settlement occurred after a Montana Supreme Court case earlier the same year. The case decided BNSF Railway could not avoid asbestos liability for its activities.

Per the settlement agreement, BNSF’s management responsibilities will include:

  • Limiting unauthorized entry into the unit area
  • Minimizing the potential of soil disturbance

BNSF is not responsible for any further cleanup. As of now, the EPA does not expect that any more cleanup will be necessary.

EPA Plans to Finish Proposal to Clean Up Vermiculite Mine in 2024

The EPA has finished cleaning seven of eight operable units. It is evaluating the units that have been cleaned but are still listed for removal from the NPL. The only unit left to be cleaned is operable unit three, the vermiculite mine. Though the mine closed in 1990, the uncleaned area continues to pose a risk to human health. The EPA plans on completing a proposed cleanup plan for unit three in 2024.

Asbestos from the vermiculite mine continues to impact residents. Because of mesothelioma’s long latency period, people exposed to asbestos decades ago may still be at risk. Residents who develop mesothelioma have treatment options available to them. Doctors at cancer centers in Montana and Washington can diagnose and treat this disease.