EPA Finally Hears From Libby Residents

The small town of Libby, Montana, has been referred to by investigative reporter Michael Bowker as “Ground Zero” in the asbestos wars. The story of this town’s tragedy has been thoroughly documented in Bowker’s book Fatal Deception, which was in turn inspired by a series of articles by Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider over seven years ago.

Despite the fact that Libby and the nearby town of Troy–which was similarly affected–have been in the national spotlight and have inspired a valiant attempt by a senator from nearby Washington State to pass anti-asbestos legislation, it appears that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been dragging its heels when it comes to the cleanup.

Montana Senator Max Baucus demanded that the EPA turn over documents to explain the delays. The documents suggest that the EPA would have moved faster and done more had the White House been willing to declare a health emergency–which, not surprisingly, it has been disinclined to do. According to Senator Baucus:

“I’ve read transcripts, I’ve read correspondence. It’s very clear to me that there was a lot of political pressure to prevent the EPA from making the right decision a couple years ago. The EPA at that time was forced, I think, by the White House to say, ‘No, don’t declare an emergency.’ And that’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.”

A White House declaration of Libby as an official health emergency would have given the EPA far more authority and resources to do a more thorough and faster cleanup in the affected communities, as well as more money for the treatment of asbestos-related disease.

Next, Senator Baucus demanded that an EPA representative explain that to the residents of Libby.

At the meeting that took place in early January, emotions ran high and people were understandably upset and suspicious. One Libby resident accused the EPA and federal government of “a lot of grandstanding on both sides.” Another man said, “How can we trust what you’re doing now?” One resident stalked out of the meeting angrily shouting, “Maybe you ought to think about the victims first!”

EPA representatives at the meeting were pragmatic: agency team leader Paul Peronard insisted that their work was “making Libby safer,” adding that if they can get more money, they agency will do more.

EPA Regional Director agreed: “It’s hard to continue to do quality work if you increase the quantity of work beyond what you can really effectively manage. And we may be getting to the point where we’ve reached that threshold.”