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EPA's Asbestos Plan: Leave It

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—The federal government has proposed leaving behind toxic asbestos found in walls of houses and underground in Libby, MT, in a final plan issued for the Superfund site.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s long-awaited plan for remaining asbestos cleanup and long-term management for Libby, and the nearby town of Troy, was released May 5—more than 15 years after the EPA began active operations in the area.

asbestos
EPA

Vermiculite from a mine operated by W.R. Grace from 1963 to 1990 was contaminated with a toxic and highly friable form of asbestos, the EPA says.

Asbestos contamination in Libby and Troy originated at a vermiculite mine there, most recently operated by W.R. Grace and Co.

Thousands of the towns' residents have been sickened from asbestos exposure. Estimates say as many as 400 people have died.

The public is invited to comment on the plan until July 8.

Reports say the EPA could wrap up its operations at the site by 2020. State officials would like that to be extended to 2025, reports relate.

Ongoing Removal Efforts

Since November 1999, EPA has worked to clean up major source areas of contamination around Libby.

“The Libby Asbestos Site is unusual in that so much removal work has already been completed to minimize exposure and risk,” according to the EPA.

Thus far, the government has spent $540 million removing more than a million cubic yards of dirt and contaminated building material from more than 2,000 properties in the area, the Associated Press reported.

Officials say the towns now have airborne asbestos concentrations comparable to levels in other cities.

Lung
CDC

Health experts indicate even minimal exposure to Libby Amphibole Asbestos can have disastrous health consequences. Pictured: asbestos fibers lodged in the lungs.

Vermiculite was used as building insulation in millions of homes across the U.S. In Libby, asbestos mine waste was also used as garden-soil additive and as fill for construction.

Health experts indicate even minimal exposure to Libby Amphibole Asbestos can have disastrous health consequences, reports say.

Plan to Leave Asbestos Behind

In its exit plan, the EPA calls for some asbestos-containing vermiculite to be left behind where it presents minimal risk and can be safely managed.

“It is not practical to remove all [asbestos] sealed behind indoor walls or to excavate all [asbestos] that is in soil,” EPA writes.

But residents are worried that the toxic material may be disturbed during future home renovations, fires, or excavation work.

“We’ve left a lot of this behind in these houses, and you always have the potential of people opening up that wall and running into it,” Mike Noble, a former Grace electrician and lung disease patient, told the Associated Press.

“The EPA is unwilling to address that because the EPA is saying it’s safe as long as nobody touches it.”

Controlling Future Potential Exposure

The EPA plan says that several “institutional controls” will be needed to manage the variety of activities that could potentially disturb contaminated soil or building materials.

Insulation
Montana Department of Environmental Quality

Vermiculite was used as building insulation in millions of homes across the the country. In Libby, asbestos mine waste was also used as garden-soil additive and as fill for construction.

Those controls, some of which have been fully or partially implemented at the site, include a property status database, Montana Department of Transportation Permit, education programs about risk of exposure prior to excavation or renovation work, and contractor certifications.

Further, additional controls will be needed manage properties that have not been screened because they were used infrequently at the time of screening or because the owner denied access, according to the EPA.

Questions Linger

In addition to residents, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has also voiced concern with the proposed plan. Specifically, the agency has commented on the lack of explanation and information regarding the implementation of the institutional controls.

They have also asked for evaluation of previous removal actions to ensure there is no unacceptable risk left behind.

In response, the EPA says "those comments will be addressed in the record of decision and subsequent design documents" and agrees that there is a need for a robust “last call” for cleanup to last a few years.

In addition to the comment period, public meetings on the plan will be held in Troy and Libby May 20 and 21.

   

Tagged categories: Air quality; Asbestos; Building materials; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Government; Insulation

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