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Dirty town cleans up its act

Plagued by asbestos, the mining town of Libby Mont. completed a major park; part of a $447 million cleanup.

By Matthew BrownAssociated Press / July 15, 2012

An eagle sign welcomes visitors at the entrance to downtown asbestos-plagued Libby, Mont. Libby, has reached a significant milestone in its decade-long cleanup as the federal government completes the makeover of a former vermiculite processing plant into a town park.

Rick Sheremeta/AP

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Billings, Mont.

Grass and freshly planted trees are sprouting in a new town park that sits atop the site of a vermiculite plant that once spewed asbestos dust across the mountain community of Libby — a welcome dose of normalcy for a city that has become synonymous with lung disease and death.

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It's a major milestone for the mining town of about 3,000 people near the Canadian border where an estimated 400 people to date have been killed by asbestos exposure. More than 1,700 have been sickened. Lethal dust from the WR. Grace and Co. plant and the company's nearby mine once blanketed the town, and asbestos illnesses are still being diagnosed more than two decades after the mine was shuttered.

Following a 12-year cleanup, Riverfront Park hosted a wedding last weekend. Officials said another wedding and a blues festival are scheduled for early August. For Mayor Doug Roll, the federal government's recent transfer of the park to the city offers a symbolic break from Libby's lethal past.

"It's sort of like Phoenix rising from the ashes," Roll said. "We've had a lot of negative stuff going on and we're trying to turn that around."

But the park — the first major finished piece of a federal cleanup that so far has cost $447 million — carries a significant asterisk: Because of the difficulty of removing all the asbestos-containing vermiculite from the highly-contaminated site, federal regulators say some of the dangerous material remains.

For three decades, the Grace plant was used to stockpile vermiculite from the mine before the material was exported by rail across the U.S. for use as attic insulation. The town's ball fields are right next door; Libby residents who today battle asbestos disease tell stories of playing in the plant's piles of raw vermiculite as children.

Just 18 inches beneath the park's surface beneath a cap of clean soil is a fluorescent orange barrier, a warning to those who dig on the site in the future that they face potential asbestos exposure.

It's one of many reminders that Libby's tragedy has yet to run its course.

The town remains under a first-of-its kind public health emergency declaration issued by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009. The deaths are expected to continue for decades due to the long latency of asbestos-related diseases.

Agency scientists still have not settled on a safe level of human exposure to the type of asbestos found in the Kootenai Valley. That means hundreds of homes and businesses cleaned once could face additional work.

Almost a million cubic yards of soil and contaminated material have been removed from Libby to date. Federal regulators say they hope to have that phase completed in the next three to five years. The end date is uncertain, pending the results of a risk assessment to determine safe levels of exposure.

The assessment could be finished sometime next year, said the EPA's Libby team leader, Victor Ketellapper. But citing the potency of Libby'sasbestos, independent scientists reviewing the document already have questioned whether it goes far enough to protect human health. If they push for changes, that could further delay completion of the assessment — and the cleanup.

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