When the U.S. Environmental Protection agency sent Mike Cirian to Libby in 2005 to spearhead cleanup efforts at the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site, he was told the project would only be a three- to five-year undertaking.
But almost 15 years later, Cirian is still stationed at the agency’s information center in downtown Libby. His office is filled with piles of documented cleanup progress reports arranged on shelves and strewn across his desk — a scene of organized chaos that only a decade and a half of work on a large-scale environmental project might beget.
What Cirian didn’t know at the start of his tenure as project manager, is that he and his team had been tasked with decontaminating one of the most significant man-made environmental calamities in United States history.
The site, much of which is now in the final stages of the EPA cleanup process, is one that fell victim to decades of corporate greed as executives of the contaminated W.R. Grace & Co. mine outside of Libby insisted the mine’s asbestos-laden vermiculite would have no adverse health effects on miners or their families.
The message was pervasive. And the Libby community took them at their word until the number of people dead or dying from pulmonary diseases, later identified to be amphibole asbestos-related, grew too large to ignore.
“There was disbelief for sure and that came from all angles, including from some doctors and the EPA. It was in homes, businesses, playgrounds and down by the river and train tracks. No one knew where to begin, really,” recalled Mike Giesey, president of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease Board of Directors and a Libby resident since 1980. “It was too fantastic of a story to be true and to be living right underneath our noses for so long.”
Multiple studies by the EPA over the years detail how operations scattered an estimated 5,000 pounds of amphibole asbestos fibers — sharp needle-like fibers that lodged in victims’ lungs — every day the vermiculite mine and mill was in operation. The U.S. government eventually deemed the crisis as “the worst case of industrial poisoning of a whole community in American history.”
In 1999, nine years after Grace ceased mining operations, EPA officials found themselves on Libby’s doorstep after the media, citizens and local government expressed concerns over a possible mass-scale asbestos exposure. After extensive evaluation, the site was added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 2002.
Now, two decades after cleanup efforts first launched, the agency is finally preparing to hand off a significant portion of the project — the decontamination of residences in Libby and Troy — to local and state government. The federal agency released a draft of its institutional controls plan in October of this year which, once approved, will act as a guideline for how to contain what asbestos remains and how future community concerns may be handled.
“I’ve had chances to move on from my job here, but when I first got to this town, I told folks that I was going to see this project through,” Cirian said. “Now we’re here and we’re basically done. We will be leaving Libby a lot better than it was when we got here.”
Since making the national priorities list, more than $600 million has been spent on investigation, research and cleanup efforts. That figure includes $250 million that Grace agreed to pay the federal government in 2008, three years after federal prosecutors charged the company and several of its executive employees with knowingly exposing people to amphibole asbestos.
Cirian said cleanup crews have removed more than one million cubic yards of contaminated soil, more than 30,000 cubic yards of contaminated building materials and have inspected and cleaned thousands of properties in Lincoln County, among other feats.
The tedious work has been centered around identifying and subsequently removing harmful asbestos fibers from eight areas, or units, near the vermiculite mine. The units are exposure pathways, or areas where researchers determined the asbestos posed threats to human and environmental health. The units include the mine itself and the sites where the railroad transported raw and processed vermiculite material, and all residential, commercial and public properties in and around Libby and Troy.
“The intention of these regulatory cleanups is to prepare the area for future use, whatever that may look like,” Cirian explained. “We do extensive studies in the beginning to determine various ways that humans, animals and other factors may come into contact with the asbestos. Then we clean according to that.”
Cirian said of all of the areas identified as being in need of decontamination, the evaluation and cleaning thousands of properties in Libby and Troy, otherwise known as operable units 4 and 7, was the most daunting. To date, more than 8,200 properties have been inspected in Lincoln County. Of those, about 2,600 were in need of decontamination. According to Cirian, those cleanups are complete.
“This was an all-hands-on-deck undertaking,” Cirian said. “This required numerous education seminars and the cooperation of property and business owners and local government.”
The mass-scale operation was first promised years before Cirian arrived on-scene by former head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman.
In an article by the Daily Inter Lake dated Sept. 8, 2001, Whitman was quoted saying, “I am here today to give you my personal assurance that the EPA is committed to seeing the full and complete protection of your health, the health of your families and the health of the environment here in Libby and Lincoln County. We’re in this together and we’re in for the long haul.”
Whitman had listened to hours of emotional testimony from those impacted by asbestos contamination from the mine. Prior to her departure, she said a high-level task force would be formed to determine how to help Libby residents navigate the unfolding of the disaster. She also announced the agency would take the “unusual legal step” of protecting Libby residents from future liability by providing homeowners with written guarantees they won’t be stuck with home cleanup costs.
Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.