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EPA report shows mixed results of Libby cleanup

A massive government operation to clean up the Libby Superfund site has so far removed more than 825,000 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated soil at nearly 1,500 homes and businesses and significantly reduced airborne concentrations of the deadly carcinogen.


But the risk of exposure to dangerous levels of asbestos in the contaminated mining town remains a concern, according to preliminary results of a toxicology study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


The draft report was presented at a public meeting in Libby, where more than 400 people have died of asbestos-related disease in recent decades. Thousands more residents were sickened by contamination from a vermiculite mine, operated by W.R. Grace and Co., that shut down in 1990.


The Libby Superfund site includes parts of Libby, the defunct mine located seven miles northeast of town, and portions of nearby Troy. The EPA’s clean-up efforts began in 2000 and have so far cost $330 million.


The toxicity study was launched five years ago in response to complaints by residents and public officials that the agency was too quick to declare the town safe. The state’s Congressional delegation, led by Sen. Max Baucus, asked the EPA’s Office of Inspector General to investigate, which led to a commitment by the agency to conduct a more comprehensive risk assessment.


In a statement that accompanied the draft report, the EPA said the cleanup has focused on reducing the largest sources of contamination, including residences, schools, roads, processing and disposal areas, and parks and ball fields. The data “confirm EPA’s earlier assessments of the effectiveness of cleanup actions in reducing exposures in Libby,” the statement said, in particular the risk of airborne concentrations of asbestos. Those levels are 10,000 times lower than in 1990, the EPA said, and are in line with Superfund targets that aim for no more than a 1-in-10,000 chance of developing lung cancer.


But the statement also acknowledged that activities that increase the release of asbestos into the air, such as mowing and landscaping, could result in “levels of risk” that exceed the Superfund target. The agency said that underscores the need for additional cleanup and adherence to recommendations that prevent soils from being disturbed.


“Although EPA has made significant progress in helping to remove the threat of asbestos in the land and air, and with it, the increased risks of lung cancer and other respiratory problems, actual and potential releases of amphibole asbestos remain a concern in Libby,” the statement said.