Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a human health assessment that included asbestos contamination clean up and controls for the Superfund site Libby in Montana. Once the public comments are submitted by August 7, the final plan will be released in December.
Montana has a long-standing history of asbestos as a superfund program, which has sickened thousands and killed hundreds. 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.
These properties were contaminated by the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine, which operated for decades before finally closing for good. The asbestos-contaminated products made by the company included surfacing materials, window glazing compounds, waterproofing compounds, cements, adhesives, and plaster.
W.R. Grace 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.
The EPA says the most significant sources of asbestos were removed during earlier abatements, but the plan targets an additional 300 to 500 residencies. It also includes numerous “institutional controls” for the remaining asbestos such as zoning restrictions on activities allowed on certain properties, permit requirements to not disturb specific soil and building materials, and firefighter and other advisories as they could come into contact and be exposed via work.
Although air asbestos concentrations are now 100,000 times lower than when the mine was open, local residents and officials are still concerned about future asbestos exposure because there’s still more to do with fibers contained in various creeks and rivers in Libby. They also strongly believe the asbestos will become airborne in the future with excavations, home renovations, and accidents, including fires.
According to Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s Libby Team Leader, “It’s impossible to remove all of the asbestos from Lincoln County and some of the product will be left in place.” Also, this does not include the original W.R. Grace mine site and the forested areas around Libby.
“This is exactly why we have public comment periods because it’s really important to get the input and understanding from the community about their interests. Because we all need to do this together to make it work for all of us,” said Jennifer Lane, EPA Involvement Coordinator.
“Even though the public comment ends on August 7, the conversation with the community will continue long after that,” said Thomas. The EPA posted the asbestos plan on their Region 8 webpage.