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EPA knew wood chips for sale were tainted by asbestos, but failed to step in

Federal regulators knew for more than three years that wood chips sold by the truckload to homeowners and landscapers around the country were contaminated with asbestos, but did nothing to halt the sales.


An investigation by the Associated Press forced the Environmental Protection Agency to admit that it learned in October 2007 that bark and wood chips stockpiled at a former lumber mill in Libby, Mt., were laced with an unknown quantity of asbestos fibers. The agency, however, did not order the facility to stop selling the material until March, 2011 when the AP began its investigation.


The wood chips were scrap from a forest tainted with asbestos dust from a massive vermiculite mine just outside Libby. Thousands of tons of the material were shipped from the former Stimson Mill lumber company to retail outlets around the country for sale to landscapers and do-it-yourself homeowners.


In a July 14 letter to Montana Sen. Max Baucus, Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator, acknowledged the EPA found asbestos fibers in four of 20 samples collected at Stimson Mill. The agency then tested the site for airborne fibers, but determined that workers at the facility were not at risk. He said the fact that workers were apparently not exposed to the dangerous fibers “is reassuring regarding potential homeowner exposure.”


Martin told Backus, who learned of the contaminated chips from the AP, that the agency will conduct additional tests to determine whether homeowners who bought wood chips are at risk. He said the agency also plans to re-analyze the samples it collected in 2007 to “quantify the level of asbestos,” and perform toxicology assessments of the material to identify any potential health effects.


Martin told the Missoulian that the EPA’s “assessment to date” does not indicate the chips pose a significant health risk. “But,” he said, “we're going to do our due diligence.”


EPA spokeswoman Sonya Pennock told the newspaper that sales were halted because the agency had new information on the toxicity of asbestos in Libby. She also said the agency had heard concerns from Libby residents about the wood chips.


When asked why the sales weren't halted earlier, Pennock told the Missoulian, “At the time it did not rise to the level of action. Now we have the new toxicity values and so we are going to apply those" at the former mill site.


As many as 400 people in and around Libby have died and hundreds more have been sickened by exposure to asbestos from the vermiculite mine, which shut down in 1990. In 2009, after an $8 million investigation into the effects of asbestos exposure on residents, the EPA declared a public-health emergency and began providing medical assistance to former mine workers, their families and other residents.


The agency has also spent more than $370 million cleaning up what it called “the most horrific environmental disaster in U.S. history.”


In a press release, Baucus, who has questioned the EPA’s commitment to the Libby cleanup efforts over the years, said the agency “should have determined the

degree to which these wood chips posed a risk to public health” sooner.


“You know well how the people of Libby have suffered for asbestos,” Baucus wrote. “I

cannot convey to you how damaging this incident is to a community whose trust has already been betrayed many times. Libby deserves answers and accountability.”