The EPA has declared a public health emergency.
The Obama administration said Wednesday it will pump more than $130 million into a Montana town where asbestos contamination has been blamed for more than 200 deaths.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency for the first time has determined there is a public health emergency in a contaminated community, targeting Libby, Mont., for immediate federal attention.
Jackson’s announcement will not result in an evacuation of Libby’s 2,600 residents, but will require an extensive, home-by-home cleanup and better health protections for those with asbestos-related illnesses.
The EPA will invest at least $125 million over the next five years in the ongoing clean up of Libby and Troy, Mont., a nearby town of about 1,000. The Health and Human Services Department will spend an additional $6 million on medical assistance for area residents suffering from asbestos-related illnesses.
The money is in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars the government and Maryland-based W.R. Grace & Co. have spent to clean up Libby, where asbestos contamination from a now-closed vermiculite mine has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people and illnesses of thousands more.
Before the vermiculite mine was closed in 1990, miners carried asbestos home on their clothes. Vermiculite once covered school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens.
The story in WaPo
In May, a federal jury acquitted mine operator W.R. Grace and three of its former executives of criminal charges related to the contamination. Grace operated the facility from 1963 until it closed in 1990, and prosecutors argued that its executives knowingly released the substance and tried to hide the danger from the community.
Baucus said that despite the verdict, he still believes the company “knew it was contaminating the town.
“Regrettably, the trial did not conclude the way I thought that it should,” he said.
There was no immediate response from the company to the senator’s remarks. During the three-month trial, Grace did not deny that the asbestos came from its mine, but it said it acted responsibly to clean up the contamination. It also paid millions in medical bills for area residents, and agreed in 2008 to pay $250 million to reimburse the EPA for its cleanup efforts.
Daniel Kessler at Tree Hugger
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes at Moderate Voice. Comment from WRGraceMinneapolis:
I have relatives living in Libby, MT. The original clinic that was set up to deal with this problem has been systematically disbanded over the last 10 years. After visiting within the shops and seeing and hearing the wheezing, rasping coughs, and asthma gasps I hope that this EPA revisiting the problem will give a bit of comfort to the dying-slowly. It is a very grim state of affairs.
(The mine is posted and roped off for about a 5 – 10 mile distance around the perimeters. However, the loading dock areas, near the RR and River are not, with public accesses built within those places- still lined with visible rocks.) The citizens are reluctant to speak out because the mine was their work place and provider of revenues to grow their families and maintain their homes.
Asbestos Watch on Zonolite:
In 2002, Grace, with help from the White House Office of Budget Management (OMB), stymied efforts to declare an emergency. At the time, the EPA wanted to remove Zonolite attic insulation from Libby homes. To remove a commercial product like Zonolite from homes and businesses, the EPA was required by law to declare an emergency.
Although the EPA announced in 2002 that it would remove attic insulation from Libby homes, Grace and the OMB had stopped the emergency declaration and kept the Zonolite name out of the press. Click here to read more about the first attempt at an emergency declaration.
Although the EPA finally declared a public health emergency in Libby last week, the word Zonolite was never uttered, or written.
None of the official documentation accompanying the decision (which you can find here), including the press release, mention Zonolite.
EPA head Lisa Jackson did not use the product name in her press conference on the emergency declaration, although she did say that, “Today EPA is launching a national education program focused on vermiculite insulation to ensure the continued education and safety of all Americans.”
David Kurtz in TPM
And a book review at Grist: “Libby, Montana” by Andrea Peacock:
It’s never been easy to make a living in Libby, Mont. Citizens in this town of 12,000, tucked into the dense, damp conifer forests of northwestern Montana, have long scraped by on seasonal logging jobs and other sporadic work. So in the 1920s, when local entrepreneur Edward Alley discovered that a nearby vermiculite deposit yielded an efficient, lightweight insulation and fireproofing material, Libbyites were thrilled.
For decades, the mine — dubbed Zonolite, like the brand-name insulation it produced — offered the best jobs in town. Townspeople bragged that their local product had “a hundred and one uses”; they put it in their garden soil and their Little League ball fields, and said it could even be used to make mold-resistant whole-wheat bread. When the Zonolite mine was sold to the multinational company W.R. Grace in 1963, not much changed for the Libby workers. Vermiculite mining and processing was hard work, and terribly dusty, but the mine jobs continued to pay better, and last longer, than anything else around.
In the 1970s, some current and former mine workers started to notice some shortness of breath; gradually, they became tethered to oxygen tanks and bound to their homes. Some developed rare, excruciating cancers. Worse, their wives, kids, and even some Libby residents with no connection to the mine started to develop similar symptoms. Only a few doctors recognized the lesions on their patients’ lungs for what they were: the signature symptom of asbestosis. It took dozens of painful deaths for Libby residents to admit that “their” company, W.R. Grace, had knowingly allowed its mine workers, its mine managers, and their families and neighbors to be poisoned with tremolite, a particularly nasty form of asbestos contained in Libby’s vermiculite deposit. [Clarification: In total, more than 190 people have died due to Grace’s mining operations in Libby, and hundreds more have contracted terminal illnesses.]
The PBS program “POV” preview from 2007: