The next phase of the longest-running, man-made environmental disaster in American history will begin soon. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a draft plan to hand off cleanup efforts in Libby, Montana to local government agencies.
EPA Exits, Local Government Takes Over
The EPA’s Institutional Control Implementation and Assurance Plan, released on Oct. 31, directs Lincoln County to manage the remaining asbestos.
The plan requires local government agencies, including the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource program and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, to dispose of any asbestos waste on private and public property.
Since 2002, Libby and surrounding areas have been on the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List. Since then, the federal government has spent more than $600 million in tax-payer money to clean the site.
The project is moving into the next phase of cleanup after the EPA finished its work in Libby last year.
Under the new plan, the EPA is required to review the effectiveness of the cleanup every five years.
The plan requires Libby and surrounding areas to maintain a database of properties not inspected by the EPA. Starting next year, residents must inform the Asbestos Resource Program before doing ay excavating, landscaping, and interior or exterior demolition.
The project manager of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Oversight Committee for the Department of Environmental Quality predicts this phase of the project will last at least 30 years.
Nearly 3,000 properties still need traces of asbestos removed from both walls and contaminated soil underground.
Lincoln County residents have until Dec. 31 to review and discuss the proposal.
A draft of the Institutional Controls Implementation and Assurance Plan can be found online on the EPA’s website.
Asbestos In Libby
The town was contaminated with asbestos after decades of vermiculite mining at the W.R. Grace mine just outside of Libby.
Between 1948 and 1993, the mining company shipped more than five million tons of asbestos to hundreds of processing facilities around the country. During that period, around 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite was extracted from mining sites near Libby.
Vermiculite is a mineral used in potting soil and as insulation for the automotive and construction industries. The natural deposits of vermiculite in Libby contained asbestos. The type of vermiculite mined in that area became known as Libby amphibole asbestos (LA).
During mining operations, asbestos dust spread throughout Libby and the neighboring town of Troy. Residents used leftover material from the mines to fill driveways, gardens, and playgrounds.
More than 400 Libby residents have died from mesothelioma or asbestos-related illnesses. For years, Libby’s disease and death rates from asbestos were significantly higher than the national average.
Over the course of nearly two decades, the EPA removed more than one million cubic yards of contaminated soil.
The EPA inspected more than 8,200 properties.
In late 2018, the EPA finished its portion of cleanup, and in April of 2019, the agency deleted a 45-acre portion off the Asbestos Superfund site from the National Priorities List.
While the site is under control, new patients continue to flood nearby medical centers with asbestos-related problems.
Inspection and cleanup efforts will still be needed in the small Montana town for years to come as the effects of the asbestos fibers still persist.