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Libby looks past federal cleanup to reduce future risk of asbestos exposure


Health officials in Libby, Mt., are looking beyond a massive federal cleanup of asbestos contamination to develop ways to reduce residents’ future risk of exposure to the dangerous mineral.

More than 400 people in Libby have died and more than 1,500 were sickened by asbestos-related disease caused by a contaminated mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co. The area was declared a federal Superfund site in 1999, when the Environmental Protection Agency — calling Libby “the most horrific environmental disaster in U.S. history” — began a massive cleanup of hazardous waste that has so far cost nearly $400 million.

In late April, the City-County Board of Health for Lincoln County announced it would begin seeking recommendations from residents aimed at developing a long-range plan to reduce the risks of asbestos exposure.

According to The Western News, a twice-weekly newspaper in Libby, the board’s work represents the first opportunity for local citizens to have a say in how the town manages potential health risks in the future.

“Since 1999, the EPA has been removing vermiculite and Libby amphibole contaminated materials from residential, commercial and public properties throughout South Lincoln County,” said Allen Payne, a member of the Libby City-County Health Committee, which will oversee the effort.  “EPA’s cleanup effort is ongoing and may continue for a number of years, but eventually the EPA will complete its cleanup work.”

The News reports that the year-long process will evaluate proposed methods to help reduce asbestos hazards during the EPA’s cleanup, as well as what role the board will have once the federal agency completes its work. Measures might include continuing education of ongoing risks of asbestos, providing resources to citizens to reduce those risks and local regulations to reduce the amount of asbestos released into the community.

The EPA has focused on reducing the largest sources of contamination, including residences, schools, roads, processing and disposal areas, and parks and ball fields. A 2011 report said the federal cleanup has resulted in airborne asbestos levels that are 10,000 times lower than in 1990.

However, the report acknowledged that activities such as mowing and landscaping continue to release asbestos into the air at potentially unsafe levels.

The local initiative is funded by the EPA. The board will hire a program coordinator to work with an environmental and engineering consultant to review local health regulations and identify resources available to the public.

Recommendations will be submitted to the public for comment and presented to the board for review.