With Budget Cuts Looming, Tester Holds EPA Administrator Accountable to Butte, Libby, and Missoula

Senator: “We have people dying and it is not a pleasant death… is Superfund cleanup still a priority for you?”

(U.S. Senate) – Just weeks after the White House proposed a budget to cut one-third of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding, U.S. Senator Jon Tester today held EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler accountable to several Montana communities.

Tester took Wheeler to task on behalf of families in Libby during a Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, for attempting to cut significant resources from an EPA toxic risk review account while the agency is attempting to finalize a Risk Evaluation Study that could lead to a nationwide ban on asbestos.

“I want to know when you are going to pull asbestos off the market,” Tester told Wheeler. “We have people dying from this, and it is not a pleasant death. Why is it out there, everybody knows what the problem is, why aren’t we pulling it off the market?”

Tester recently introduced the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act to ban the manufacturing, processing, use, and distribution of asbestos. More than 200 residents of Libby have died and thousands more have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases since W.R. Grace closed its local vermiculite mine in 1990.

Following the hearing, Tester met with Dr. Brad Black of Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease Clinic who was in Washington, D.C. to express frustration with the White House proposal to slash funding.

Tester also questioned Wheeler’s commitment to cleaning up the Superfund site at Butte as the agency attempts to cut more than $100 million in Superfund funding.

“Is Superfund cleanup still a priority for you?” Tester asked Wheeler. “Right now Butte has one employee on the site for a few days a week and your Superfund budget is going to be cut by $100 million. How do you square that with cleaning up the site?”

A 2017 Inspector General report on the EPA found that the West Side Soils unit of the Butte Superfund site was understaffed and the Administration has failed to take action since the report was released.

Tester closed the hearing by ensuring that Wheeler was aware of the potential environmental catastrophe at the former Smurfit-Stone site near Missoula. The former manufacturing site sits on the floodplain of the Clark Fork River and contains toxic waste, including waste in barrels beneath the ground.

“This piece of property has chemicals buried on it,” Tester added. “There are still people alive who know that site, find out where that stuff is now and it will save a lot of heartache down the road.”

The Smurfit-Stone paper and pulp mill closed in 2010 and soil and water samples have identified the presence of cancer-causing chemicals. If the underground barrels break open, it is possible that the dangerous chemicals will reach the Clark Fork River or aquifer.