Agency Declares Asbestos Emergency in Montana

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson on June 17 said a public health emergency exists at the Libby asbestos site in northwest Montana.

Over the past years, hundreds of asbestos-related disease cases have been documented in this small community, which covers the towns of Libby and Troy.

The announcement was made at a joint press conference with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

This is the first time EPA has made a determination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) that conditions at a site constitute a public health emergency. This determination recognizes the serious impact to the public health from the contamination at Libby and underscores the need for further action and health care for area residents who have been or may be exposed to asbestos.

Investigations performed by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry have found the incidence of occurrence of asbestosis, a lung condition, in the Libby area staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979-1998. EPA is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is making available a short-term grant to provide needed asbestos-related medical care to Libby and Troy residents.

"This is a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long. We're making a long-delayed commitment to the people of Libby and Troy. Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation on the ground, we will continue to move aggressively on the clean-up efforts and protect the health of the people," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Secretary Sebelius said that "the Department of Health and Human Services has been working closely with the EPA and the residents of Lincoln County for a number of years to conduct screenings and help provide access to care. Now, we have come together … to offer a new grant to provide short-term medical assistance for screening, diagnostic, and treatment services in a comprehensive and coordinated manner in partnership with local officials on the ground in Lincoln County. "

"This is a great day for Libby. This is a town that was poisoned by W.R. Grace, then had to wait year after year as the last administration failed to determine that public health emergency exists. But today is a new day," said Sen. Max Baucus. "Today is the day that Administrator Jackson did the right thing and made this vital determination. Today is the day that Secretary Sebelius declared that people in Libby will get the health care they need. Today is the day that, after years of work, we were able to succeed in getting this done. Yet, we won't stop here. We will continue to push until Libby has a clean bill of health."

Sebelius tasked two HHS agencies—the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry—to help county residents. These two agencies will support a new grant to assist affected residents who need medical care. Local officials are currently putting together a grant proposal that will lay out options for provision of medical care that will work for the residents of Lincoln County. HHS anticipates that this grant can be awarded in August 2009.

The Libby asbestos site has been on the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List since 2002, and cleanup has taken place since 2000. EPA has made progress in helping to remove the threat of asbestos in the land and air, and with it, the increased risks of lung cancer, asbestosis, and other respiratory problems. While EPA's cleanup efforts have greatly reduced exposure, actual and potential releases of amphibole asbestos remain a significant threat to public health in that area.

The Libby asbestos site includes portions of the towns of Libby and Troy and an inactive vermiculite mine seven miles northeast of the town. Gold miners discovered vermiculite in Libby in 1881; in the 1920s the Zonolite Company formed and began mining the vermiculite. In 1963, W.R. Grace bought the Zonolite mining operations. The mine closed in 1990. It is estimated that the Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the United States from 1919 to 1990.

Last month, W.R. Grace and three individual defendants were acquitted of criminal charges under the Clean Air Act alleging they conspired to conceal the health dangers posed by the contamination. A fourth individual defendant, the company's in-house counsel, was scheduled to stand trial in September, but prosecutors filed a notice Monday that charges against him had been dismissed.

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