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Libby Asbestos Program On Hold During EPA Investigation

By Michael Bartlett

Posted on December 29th, 2016

Libby, Montana, is a controversial place, especially known for extensive vermiculite mining and for the highest rate of asbestos contamination and asbestos-related deaths from mesothelioma and other diseases in the nation. Although the mine closed in 1990, its deadly legacy still remains.

The site of one of America's worst environmental disasters may have produced 80 percent of the world's supply of vermiculite by the time W.R. Grace and Company bought the local mine. The effects on human health after intense mining activity raised public awareness about the toxic hazards and mining eventually stopped. An EPA Superfund program started in order to help locals deal with asbestos. Recently, some allegations of misspent grant money occurred and a federal investigation started. While the government investigates, funding for the asbestos program is currently on hold.

Half of Libby's Population Developed an Asbestos Disease

Vermiculite is a mineral that occurs naturally and is widely used as a soil conditioner and in the production of insulating materials. Because the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with tremolite - one of the most toxic forms of asbestos fibers, the town suffered from an extremely high rate of asbestosis, malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer and many other diseases since the asbestos contamination first began.

W.R. Grace & Company operated asbestos and vermiculite mines in Libby for about 30 years from the year, 1919. The Government allowed W.R. Grace to operate the Libby mine until 1990 and permitted imports of asbestos in spite of the company's management being aware of the asbestos-related diseases.

During the operations of W.R. Grace mine, the harmful vermiculite ore was transported to more than 50 processing plants throughout the nation.

In 1999, EPA responded to the concerns of citizens, local government, and media regarding possible exposure to asbestos from the nearby vermiculite mine. Investigations and removal actions have started since 2000. EPA made significant progress in reducing the amount of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in the area, reducing the chances of developing lung disease and other breathing problems. The amount of dust in the air is now nearly 100,000 times lower than when the vermiculite mine and mill were operating.

However, nearly half of Libby's population developed an asbestos disease. People die or suffer from asbestos-related diseases for generations. Because such diseases can develop progressively for 30 years before symptoms appear, many more cases are expected to surface.

The EPA Asbestos Program Attempts to Help Residents

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asbestos program is intended to help residents if they plan to disturb soil on their properties. Recent allegations of misspent grant money have caused a federal investigation and Superfund Libby financing had to be put on hold.

Earlier this year Lincoln County commissioners suspected that some EPA grant money was used for legal services and hired an independent auditor. County officials informed the EPA about the problem, which triggered the evaluation. EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison declared that the agency is currently evaluating the inconsistencies with federal grant regulations they have been previously notified about. She also says the program can continue to operate, but the reimbursements are going to be subject to the grant review.

Lincoln County has already paid for the legal fees and is waiting to be informed about the exact amount owed to the EPA.