Montana asbestos site declared a public health emergency by EPA
On June 17, 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a public health emergency at an asbestos mine site in northwestern Montana. The nearby towns of Libby and Troy were contaminated with asbestos-laced dust that federal prosecutors said resulted in more than 200 deaths and 1,000 illnesses. The EPA has grappled with the "toxic legacy" of the mine outside Libby, Montana, since 1999, said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Investigations by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry found that reported occurrences of the lung disease, asbestosis, in the area were staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979-1998.
This declaration marked the first time that the EPA had made a determination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The determination acknowledges serious impact to public health from contamination at the Libby site. It calls for assistance and medical care for residents in the area who have been, or may have been, exposed to asbestos.
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“This is a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long,” said Jackson.“We’re making a long-delayed commitment to the people of Libby and Troy. Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation on the ground, we will continue to move aggressively on the cleanup efforts and protect the health of the people.”
Back in January 2009, during the EPA confirmation hearing for Jackson, Montana Senator Max Baucus pressed Jackson to review the issue of asbestos contamination in Libby. He said that the residents of the town had been “hung out to dry.” Baucus presented Jackson and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius with a photo of a former miner Les Skramstad, one of his constituents.
"He died, and others in Libby have died," Baucus said at the hearing. "But the decision is the beginning of what needed to be done. It's the first time in American history that we've had this declaration, and I cannot think of a more fitting time and place for it than Libby, Montana."
Vermiculite or Zonolite
The emergency asbestos site in Libby included an inactive vermiculite mine, said to be the largest and oldest one in the country. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral used for commercial and industrial purposes such as insulation. Much of the vermiculite used in commercial products from 1919 to 1990 was discovered to be contaminated with asbestos, and it is estimated that the Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of the vermiculite sold in the US during this time period. The asbestos had formed underground naturally alongside the vermiculite in a similar geological process.
Gold miners originally discovered vermiculite in Libby in 1881. In the 1920s the Zonolite Company formed and sold the vermiculite under the commercial name zonolite. The zonolite brand and mine were bought by the W.R. Grace Company in 1963.
The consequences of mismanaging hazardous material
"For decades, the disease and death rate from asbestosis in the Libby area was staggeringly high -- much higher than the national average," EPA administrator Jackson told reporters in 2009. “Not only did dust from the mine spread all over Libby and the neighboring town of Troy for decades, but tailings from the facility also were used as fill for driveways, gardens and playgrounds. Literally no matter where these residents turned, they were being exposed yet again," she added.
Jackson said that the EPA’s declaration "should be a reminder of the serious consequences of mismanaging hazardous material."
After the public health emergency was declared, the EPA designated a total of about $333 million to cleanup and medical assistance to the Libby area, but the EPA still does not know how many properties will require cleanup. The agency still needs to conduct "significant research" into the health effects of the type of asbestos that has been spread around the town since the 1920s, said EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy.
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