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Portion of Libby cleanup deleted from priorities list

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | May 29, 2020 1:00 AM

Another portion of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site was recently deleted from the National Priorities List after officials with several environmental agencies determined all required cleanup activities were complete.

The site was first placed on the list in 2002 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined high levels of toxic amphibole asbestos had coated much of the Libby community and parts of Troy as a result of long-term mining operations at the now-shuttered W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.

Upon being placed on the list, the site was divided into eight “Operable Units,” or different contaminated areas the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) identified as being in-need of specific remedial actions.

According to a press release, it’s Operable Unit 1 that was recently deleted from the list.

This 17-acre unit is primarily made up of areas impacted by asbestos contamination released from the former Export Plant. These areas include the plant itself, the Riverfront Park area and the embankments along Montana 37.

Components of long-term remedy included the removal and containment of contaminants and institutional controls to prevent exposure. Cleanup actions for Operable Unit 1 were completed by the EPA in 2014, but review of those efforts and other measures extended its deletion from the list.

According to the press release, the removal is based on a determination that “no further remediation action is needed to protect human health and the environment.” From here on out, the area will continue to be subject to operation and maintenance activities, including regular reviews for protectiveness.

“This is the second deletion of properties in Libby from the Superfund list in two years, a milestone that demonstrates the progress EPA and our partners have made in the cleanup and restoration of properties,” EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin said. “We will continue to ensure protectiveness at this deleted Operable Unit, as well as address contamination at other Operable Units that have not been deleted.”

IN APRIL 2019, the EPA announced the first property deletion after cleanup efforts at Operable Unit 2 concluded. The 47-acre unit consists of areas impacted by operations at the former W.R. Grace Screening Plant including the Flyway property, the Montana 37 right-of-way near the old plant and various privately owned properties near the plant and Rainy Creek Road.

When the unit was removed from the list, the EPA’s former Acting Regional Administrator, Deb Thomas, said “The deletion of these properties from the Superfund list reflects the progress EPA and our partners continue to make in clearing up and restoring properties in Libby.”

And while it has taken the better part of 20 years to delete units 1 and 2, there is still much work to be done on the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site as a whole.

The other units have yet to be officially removed from the National Priorities List and, according to the EPA’s superfund website, these collectively consist of contaminated residences and buildings, the former Stimson Lumber Mill, the BNSF railroad corridor, highways and roadways, the actual vermiculite mine and more.

Although cleanup at most of these contaminated sites is progressing nicely, according to the EPA’s website, it’s the mine itself and the forested area surrounding the mining site — two areas that form Operable Unit 3 — that EPA officials say may pose the biggest cleanup challenge moving forward.

In late 2019, EPA project manager for the Libby site, Mike Cirian, told the Daily Inter Lake the EPA didn’t have a clear idea as to what cleanup efforts at the forest and mine would like. He said “it could be anything from just monitoring the site closely to digging everything up and moving it somewhere else. Most likely the answer will be in the middle of those.”

According to one update in September 2019, the EPA is still in the process of performing a feasibility study on the unit. The study serves as a mechanism for collecting data in order to characterize site conditions, determine the nature of the waste and more and is considered the third step in the agency’s nine-step Superfund cleanup process.

The EPA is working with W.R. Grace on efforts pertaining to Operable Unit 3. The company, which still owns the mine, is considered the responsible party.

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