Tester wants agencies to unite on Libby asbestos

The Missoulian

by Michael Jamison

For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning asbestos contamination from Libby, working to make the town safe.

Trouble is, no one at EPA knows how clean is clean, or how safe is safe.

Answering those scientific and medical questions has been the job of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and at least one lawmaker wants the two federal agencies to work together more closely.

“They're both sort of doing their own thing, but they're not necessarily sharing information as well as they could,” Aaron Murphy said.

Murphy is spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who on Wednesday called for closer collaboration between EPA and DHHS. Better communication, the senator said, would result in better cleanup as well as better health care in Libby.

“This isn't about the two agencies not communicating,” Murphy said. “It's just the fact that there's no formal and coordinated effort in Libby.”

The town, a federal Superfund site, is contaminated with asbestos, a byproduct of historic vermiculite mining. Hundreds have been sickened, and an estimated 200 have died from asbestos-related disease.

For about a decade, officials have taken a two-pronged approach, focusing both on cleanup and on health research. But on Wednesday, when Tester asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for an update on the “how-clean-is-clean” question, Jackson said she did not know, advising the senator to check with DHHS.

“They have a similar cause,” Murphy said, “and they need to be sharing everything.”

During Wednesday's meeting, Tester proposed a formal teaming of EPA and DHHS resources, telling Jackson that a more intimate collaboration would represent “a giant step forward in meeting some of the challenges that occur in Libby.”

Recently, the senator helped establish a similar partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.

“Now, they're going to share information and records,” Murphy said, “which will streamline the process of health care for veterans.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chaired Wednesday's hearing, and offered to help Tester “in any way.”

She recommended, according to a news release, that “we work together on some report language for the (appropriation) bill, which essentially would mandate the EPA to really do what Sen. Tester has just suggested – take a new look at it, and give us some findings.”

What, exactly, the collaborative wording would look like remains unknown, however.

During the hearing, Tester also reflected on the recent acquittal of mining company executives accused of covering up the dangers of Libby asbestos.

“The people in Libby and Montana are extremely frustrated,” he told Jackson. “The situation in Libby is serious enough that it demands your personal attention.”

Previously, Jackson agreed to visit Libby.

That sort of hands-on awareness, coupled with better interagency communication, will “get a big bang for the buck,” he said. “We can help make Libby whole again and we can solve a huge problem that we have in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”