Has the EPA Cleaned Up Libby’s Asbestos Problem?

Asbestos Contamination From W.R. Grace's Mine Resulted in Libby Becoming a Superfund Site

WASHINGTON, DC - December 15, 2006 - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to determine whether its cleanup of asbestos in Libby, Montana, has been successful, according to a report by the agency's own Office of the Inspector General. In addition, the EPA issued contradictory and misleading information to town residents about how they may protect themselves from asbestos, the report said.

People in the Libby area have high levels of asbestos diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma, a rapidly-progressing cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs. The town is the site of a vermiculite mine that is heavily contaminated with asbestos.

Operated by W.R. Grace and other companies for over 65 years, the Libby mine produced millions of tons of asbestos-containing vermiculite before it was shut down in 1990. Vermiculite is an ore used in soil conditioners, potting soil and insulation. Over 200 processing plants throughout the nation received the asbestos-tainted vermiculite. Workers became exposed to asbestos while unloading trainloads of vermiculite and while processing the ore. Some tracked home asbestos fibers on their clothes and shoes, exposing their families to the deadly dust.

A History of EPA Actions in Libby

The EPA's efforts to cleanup Libby began in 1999. In 2000, it sampled lawn and garden products containing vermiculite to check for asbestos contamination. The agency also checked Libby homes and took air samples near the mine's railroad loading area and at an "export site" for shipping out vermiculite, located directly near school ball fields. Most samples showed asbestos contamination.

The agency began a major emergency cleanup response in Libby in 2002, when the town became a Superfund area. Libby is now on the National Priorities List, which focuses on those sites that pose high health risks to the public.

In June of this year, the EPA found asbestos in the soil surrounding the vermiculite shipping or export site, an area that had been cleaned twice, once by the agency and once by W.R. Grace. Libby residents became concerned about this discovery as well as about their own homes. They fear that Libby homes that have been cleaned by the EPA may still be contaminated with asbestos (Libby Community Advisory Group, August, 2006).

Did the EPA Provide Appropriate Information to Libby Residents?

The EPA produced the document, Living with Vermiculite, for the guidance of Libby residents. According to the Inspector General's report, the document states that homeowners would have little risk of exposure if they handle asbestos while cleaning up an undefined small release of asbestos. The report disagrees with this assessment, stating that handling a small amount of asbestos could bring someone into contact with dangerous levels of fibers. The EPA recently took down the document from its web site.

Similarly, the report said that an EPA pamphlet, Asbestos in Your Home, could be misleading. In this document, the EPA defines a small release of asbestos to be no larger than a homeowner's hand. However, the American Lung Association warns that the homeowner should not attempt to remove or repair any level of asbestos, a difference in opinion that should be highlighted for the consumer, according to the report.

The EPA Inspector General's Asbestos Recommendations

The report found that the EPA did not plan or complete a risk and toxicity assessment of the Libby asbestos. It concluded that the agency "cannot be sure that the ongoing Libby cleanup is sufficient to prevent humans from contracting asbestos-related diseases."

All forms of asbestos are hazardous to human health and can cause cancer and asbestosis. However, tremolite and actinolite, types of asbestos that were found in the Libby mine, may be particularly lethal, the Inspector General report suggests. It strongly recommends that the EPA perform further tests on animals concerning these forms of asbestos. It also recommends further studies about how and when humans may come into contact with the asbestos from the Libby mine. A complete report of risk would include:

  • Data collection (site, history, exposure potential, type of asbestos and distribution)
  • Exposure assessment (how much and in what ways exposure can occur)
  • Toxicity assessment (how the asbestos from the Libby mine causes harmful effects in humans, including children)

The report also recommends that the EPA review its literature and correct any misstatements made to the public about asbestos, especially to the residents of Libby. The Inspector General has sent a full copy of the report to head personnel at the EPA, and asked for a response by January 5, 2007, including an action plan and deadlines. Meanwhile, the EPA's community involvement coordinator for Libby has commented to the press that part of the problem is inadequate funding (Missoulian, December 6, 2006).

Obtaining a Copy of the Report

You may find the full text of the Inspector General's Quick Reaction Report on the EPA's report site.