Asbestos aftermath: Cleanup challenged by distrust in government, research

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Even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised early on the federal government would do what it could to clean up asbestos contamination in Libby, EPA officials weren’t quite sure what they were up against.

Beginning in 1999, crews began testing the air and dust in a handful of homes throughout Lincoln County using different existing research models. In one 2000 article by the Daily Inter Lake, officials said that laboratories using an existing analytical model to test soil samples from Libby told the EPA they “suspect the test results understate the amount of asbestos fibers.”

It took years of hypothesizing and experimenting before the EPA fully understood the amphibole asbestos fibers and how to effectively decontaminate a home.

“When I first got here, no one had ever done this kind of magnitude of residential property inspections and cleanups and had never really dealt with those specific fibers, so it was a learning curve for everybody,” said Mike Cirian, project manager of the Superfund cleanup in Libby since 2005 .

But as researchers grappled, multiple homeowners and the community started to lose trust in the cleanup process and eventually the EPA as crews asked families to evacuate from their homes, sometimes for months at a time.

Because the process started off on an ambiguous note, multiple homeowners decided to deny the inspections and decontamination of their homes and properties — a decision that many say was fueled from the start by a general distrust in big government, a distrust in science, a desire to live in ignorance, or a mix of all three.

“It appeared they were kind of developing the science as they went along. It made it difficult for those were on the fence already to really consider the program,” said Leroy Thom, a board member of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, known as the CARD clinic. “It was frustrating for people when the EPA had to go back into a home and re-do a cleanup. I’d say it took five or six years for people to believe the research.”

The threat amphibole asbestos posed to the community was made loud and clear, however, when the EPA announced a public health emergency on June 17, 2009. It was the first time the agency had ever made such an announcement.

“The determination recognizes the serious impact to the public health from the contamination at Libby and underscores the need for further action and health care for area residents who have been or may be exposed to asbestos,” the announcement read. The emergency announcement was largely spearheaded by former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana.

“This is a great day for Libby. This is a town that was poisoned by W.R. Grace, then had to wait year after year as the administration failed to determine that public health emergency exists,” Baucus wrote in 2009. “But today is a new day.”

The event pushed the cleanup process, fine-tuned by then, into high gear. At the project’s peak, Cirian said more than 200 employees were scouring homes.

But even after the EPA had developed its cleaning procedures and the public health emergency rocked the town of Libby, there were plenty of steadfast residents who refused to accept the free inspection and decontamination.

Cirian said the percentage of homes standing untouched and possibly laden with asbestos is small, and added that, so long as the dust remains unstirred, risk for exposure is practically nonexistent.

However, as the EPA prepares to hand off the project, there are still questions going into the future about who, or what, will clean the homes of those who refused the services in the past.

“We’ve dealt with most of the people and their concerns and, I think the biggest concern now, that is not necessarily part of what the EPA handles, is who’s going to pay for what,” Cirian said. “People want to know if the home they bought is decontaminated and if not, well, whose responsibility is it?”

These are questions the EPA, local government and other stakeholders are currently working to address in the form of an institutional controls plan, which contains proposals for how to best transition Libby into its post-EPA era. It was released Oct. 31.

Proposed controls include ongoing educational programs aimed at informing people of the dangers associated with the remaining asbestos dust, should it be disturbed, and the creation of a data base so current and future residents can know the history of their homes and whether a cleanup was performed. As for who’s paying if a home wasn’t decontaminated, Lincoln County officials say the millions left over from site remediation and the settlement with Grace should be cover the costs.

The public has until Dec. 31 to review and comment on the document.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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