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President Donald Trump’s proposed plan to make cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would place Montana’s environmental cleanup projects in jeopardy. The White House’s proposal would decrease budget and staff by 20 percent, costing 3,000 employees their jobs and resulting in a budget decrease of $2 billion.
If the measure passes through Congress, projects like the Libby Asbestos Superfund site, the proposed Superfund site at the Smurfit-Stone Mill in Frenchtown, the Old Sawmill district’s Brownfields grants program in Missoula, and polluted industrial areas along the Clark Fork River would lose 44 percent of their funding.
“When they start talking about cutting 20 percent of the EPA’s budget and closing offices, we need to be pretty wary in Montana,” said Peter Nielsen, director of the Water Quality District with the Missoula City-County Health Department.
Montana is the only state in Region 8 (an area including Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas) that has a separate office in addition to its regional headquarters. There are 17 Superfund sites in the state where the EPA is assisting with various cleanup efforts.
In Libby, W.R. Grace & Company was the primary cause for the area becoming an asbestos Superfund site. The company was well-known for illegally dumping industrial waste containing large amounts of asbestos at several of their Libby facilities. The EPA included Libby as part of the Superfund Cleanup Plan of 1980, which addressed the immediate need for cleaning and securing the most dangerously polluted areas in the U.S.
Despite Trump’s statements about asbestos being “100 percent safe, once applied,” exposure to the known carcinogen can lead to a range of health problems, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Unfortunately, symptoms for these serious and often aggressive diseases don’t typically appear until 20-50 years after exposure, making treatment difficult.
In 2009 the EPA declared a public health emergency in Libby due to an increasingly large amount of asbestos-related health problems. This was a historical moment because a public health emergency was never before related to a Superfund site.
“From our perspective, this budget is a full-on retreat from common sense,” said Karen Knudsen, Executive Director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “It’s reckless and a retreat from the history that led to the formation of the EPA in the first place. It forgets the lessons of a contaminated landscape.”
Even without the EPA budget cuts Trump is proposing, these projects are already an extremely large undertaking. With these potential changes, officials fear all the progress made will come to an abrupt halt.