Tester: 'The people of Libby want their future back'

Flathead Beacon

by Dan Testa

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday declared the asbestos contamination in Libby a public health emergency, the first time the EPA has made such a designation since the Superfund law was passed in 1980.

The declaration will result in renewed and extensive contamination cleanup, along with enhanced medical care to treat asbestos-related illness in Libby and Troy, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said. A public meeting in Libby scheduled for June 22 with EPA officials will offer more details on the breadth of the services to be offered.

“For years, Libby and Troy residents have been at higher risk for lung cancer,” Jackson said. “We determined that we needed to step up our efforts to help.”

Jackson made the announcement at a Washington D.C. press conference joined by Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“This is a truly historic day,” Baucus said, “The U.S. government is doing what’s right for people who have been oppressed for so long.”

“I cannot emphasize too strongly just what a tragedy the situation is in Libby,” Baucus added. “It’s also a reminder – a reminder of how much more we have to do.”

Libby’s vermiculite mine, purchased by W.R. Grace & Co. in 1963 has resulted in one of the worst public health disasters in U.S. history, resulting in roughly 200 deaths and 2,000 sickened from asbestos-related diseases caused by the tremolite asbestos in the ore. Not only were the miners sickened or killed, but their families and even members of the community who did not work in the Grace mine fell victim to the contamination. The EPA declared Libby a Superfund site in 2002.

Sebelius praised the work the federal government has previously undertaken to aid Libby residents, including the establishment of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, or CARD Clinic in Libby. The HHS department also plans to begin an $8-million, 8-year epidemiology study in Libby this year, though funding for that grant was established last year and not related to the new declaration. But she said more is needed.

“Despite the past work, it simply was not enough,” Sebelius said. “We can no longer turn a blind eye.”

Baucus secured a $6 million grant last month, for the Lincoln County Health Department and other health agencies providing medical aid to asbestos victims. In Wednesday’s news conference, he called the grant “a good start,” but he and Jackson declined to give specifics on what the further costs of the emergency declaration might be, saying that the unique nature of tremolite asbestos, and how the human body reacts to such contamination, still requires a great deal of study. Jackson added that she did not believe additional cleanup acts outside of the Troy and Libby area are currently necessary.

In a later conference call with Montana reporters, an EPA official speaking on background said the emergency declaration gives agency workers conducting asbestos cleanups in the homes of Libby and Troy residents a firmer legal standing to carry out removals of vermiculite insulation.

In May, a U.S. District Court jury in Missoula acquitted W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives on charges that they knowingly exposed Libby residents to tremolite asbestos and then covered it up to continue making profits and avoid liability. Earlier this week, federal prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against the final Grace defendant in the case. Baucus said he disagreed with the outcome of the case.

“The company, W.R. Grace, in my opinion, knew what it was doing,” Baucus said. “This declaration is the beginning of what needed to be done.”

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Baucus continually did battle with the EPA over Libby, and charged in a September 2008 report that the agency had conspired with the national Office of Management and Budget to block the declaration of a public health emergency in Libby due to the costs.

During Jackson’s confirmation hearing earlier this year, Baucus pressed her to declare a public health emergency in Libby.

Tester characterized Libby as a small town of hard-working people who played by the rules, but no community could bear the strain on its own of such an enormous environmental disaster: “The system let Libby down,” Tester said. “The people of Libby want their future back.”

“This is a long overdue, common-sense decision,” he added. “We still have a long way to go to do the right thing for the people of Libby.”