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.
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Jeff Camplin, an environmental safety consultant who has been working with activists in Libby, said the uncertain timetable means the EPA has pushed forward without enough scientific grounding to guide its cleanup.Skip to next paragraph
"They just seem to be throwing money at the issue," said Camplin. "There's not a good handle on what is the scope of the problem, what is the overall master cleanup plan."
Camplin and others, including a former member of the town council, have warned that EPA contractors are inadvertently cross-contaminating the town in the rush to make it safer. They contend that earlier this year the contractors unknowingly pulled up steel parking barriers at Riverfront Park made from sections of pipe used by Grace to transport vermiculite, spilling raw material from the pipes and fouling the site yet again.
EPA's manager of the park site, Rebecca Thomas, rejected the claim, saying the pipes were neither contaminated nor in contact with contaminated soil. She said she did not know the history of the pipes themselves.
It wouldn't be the first time vermiculite turned up in an area already treated by the EPA. Since the agency descended on Libby in 1999 after media reports about rising numbers of deaths, the EPA and Grace have revisited the former export plant site at least six times to remove vermiculite or carry out other cleanup actions.
As recently as late May, vermiculite was found during excavation to install a communication line through the 17-acre park. Thomas said all of the vermiculite found was either removed or covered with clean material.
"We have utmost confidence that everything in the top 18 inches is clean," she said. "There are areas where it was left in place at low concentrations when it was found. It just doesn't make sense to just dig and dig and dig."
The plant site is one of two pieces of the cleanup finished so far. Work on the site of a second W.R. Grace plant was completed this summer.
Six targets are pending: The mine itself; Libby's houses, commercial buildings and public properties; a contaminated Stimson Lumber mill site; a Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line used to transport vermiculite out of town; the nearby town of Troy; and state highways in the area.
Most already have seen some vermiculite removals or other cleanup work, including almost 1,700 houses. The sprawling open-air mine outside of town — still controlled by Grace — is at the earliest stage of cleanup. Ketellapper said interim work there could begin as early as August.
Hazards still exist, particularly for excavators, landscapers and gardeners who dig in the dirt. But compared to when the mine was operating, Ketellapper said the air in Libby is "orders of magnitude" cleaner than it once was.
"When EPA first got here there were piles of highly-contaminated material on the surface. Piles of waste material on the ball fields," he said, adding that it's now rare for asbestos to be detected during air monitoring tests.
During the cleanup of the park site, Mayor Roll said he sat by the Kootenai one day considering Libby's future.
"The river was so calming it was weird. We turned something ugly into something beautiful. That will continue to go on," he said.
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