EPA Orders Temporary Halt to Asbestos Cleanup in Libby, Montana

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a stop-work order against cleanup contractor Air, Soil and Water in Libby, Montana, after oversight crews discovered that the contractor’s workers were not using proper respiratory protection and were using river water in their portable pumps. EPA Libby Team Leader Paul Peronard characterized the health and safety issues as “very serious”, and says that the EPA hopes the contractor can resume work next week. Samples are still being taken at other Libby sites, including the Stimson Mill site and the railway yards belonging to Burling-Northern Santa Fe. Peronard reported that many of the smaller areas of town are ready for final cleanup, but that the final cleanup decisions for Libby as a whole may still be two or three years away.

The EPA’s cleanup effort this year is expected to be comparable with the effort in 2007, although the W.R. Grace Co. is expected to make a $250 million payout this year that could accelerate the process. To date, approximately 1,000 small sites such as homes and businesses have been cleaned of asbestos and vermiculite contamination. There are 150 cleanups scheduled for 2007, along with plans to conduct remediation along two local creeks. Repeated activity-based sampling tests, in which crews test levels of airborne asbestos fibers while engaging in normal daily activities, continue to show that the majority of asbestos contamination is out of doors, and that the interiors of homes and businesses are relatively safe. Libby, Montana, is possibly the most famous asbestos-contamination site in the United States.

Libby is the home of a major vermiculite mine, which produced the useful gardening and insulation additive from 1919 until 1990. The W.R. Grace Company bought the mine in 1963 and continued operations until 1990, when the mine was closed down. Vermiculite is not harmful to human health, but the Libby mine’s vermiculite deposits appear to have been heavily contaminated with tremolite, a form of asbestos which is linked to many respiratory conditions as well as lung cancer and mesothelioma. Since 1990, the EPA has spent more than $120 million on remediating asbestos contamination in Libby.