Libby Officials Unhappy About EPA’s Transference of Responsibility

Fifteen years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its remedial investigation phase in Libby, a risk assessment – something usually done before asbestos cleanup efforts begin – has not been completed. The EPA has yet to provide results from a toxicology test, which are required before the assessment can be done. Now, residents of the area are worried, fearing the EPA may transfer to homeowners and future real estate developers the financial responsibility associated with the cleanup.

The growing concern stems from a recent informal meeting, in which Nick Raines, manager of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program, met with the EPA to discuss the agency’s plans for finalizing the contamination cleanup. Raines later shared a summary of the meeting with county health board members, leading Libby mayor Doug Roll to express his discontent. “A lot of things here raise red flags,” Roll said in response to the summary.

The board members paid special attention to a draft document put together by EPA remedial project leader Rebecca Thomas, which provided details regarding when the agency would consider the task finalized. According to the document, so long as vermiculite insulation was sealed off or in inaccessible areas, the work would be considered complete. As far as outdoors contamination is concerned, the project would be finalized when low levels of asbestos were present, or when higher levels of asbestos were covered by a layer of topsoil.

What really unnerved the board members was the document’s outlining of how “remnants” should be dealt with. In terms of maintaining the contamination, the document stated that it was the responsibility of property owners to manage vermiculite remnants whenever such contaminants are encountered. To the board members, this was unacceptable. “I’ll put it bluntly,” said Roll. “This is ridiculous.”

Over the past several years, the EPA sent numerous “comfort letters” to Libby residents, promising them that the cleanup costs would not fall on the homeowners.

“We were given the assurance there would be resources,” said board member Allen Payne. “We didn’t understand the resources were the homeowners.”

Although the EPA responded by assuring the board members that it would always have a presence in Libby, the agency also pointed out that this method was similar to those used at other Superfund sites.

The purpose of the informal meeting was to provide officials with an outline of the EPA’s plans and to receive feedback. The board members certainly had plenty to say in response to the proposed finalization. “This is a horrible strategy,” said board member Brad Black. “There would be huge losses to people in the community.”

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