EPA declares health emergency in Montana town

Nestled between the Kootenai River and Cabinet Mountains, the town of Libby, Mont. is pictured Wednesday, June 17, 2009. The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time has determined there is a public health emergency in a contaminated community. Photo by AP

LIBBY, Mont. - Yvonne Resch remembers thinking as a child that the vermiculite mine only added to the area's natural beauty - its lights on Zonolite Mountain looked like a castle.

But the mine and its processing plants spewed asbestos over her town for more than 70 years, coating homes, schools and ball fields. Now her father, mother and two brothers are among many residents who suffer the coughing, hacking and wheezing of asbestos-related diseases, which have been blamed in more than 200 deaths since the late 1990s.

The Environmental Protection Agency took the unprecedented step this week of declaring Libby a federal public health emergency, vowing to finally finish a cleanup that has languished for nearly a decade."We need to get this cleaned up and cleaned up right," Mayor Doug Roll said Thursday.

The agency pledged at least $125 million to speed the work of going door-to-door, raising tents over contaminated homes, removing contaminated soil and vacuuming out attics and any other surface once contaminated by miners returning from work.

The alarming declaration has so far been met with Western stoicism. Many residents seem to have accepted that they share this scenic valley of towering pines and snow-covered mountain peaks with a silent killer.

For decades ore was brought to processing plants in Libby, where a smokestack released up to 24,000 pounds of dust a day. Asbestos-contaminated mine waste, known as tailings, were also used to line an elementary school skating rink and to build running tracks at local junior high and high schools.

The vermiculite - which was used to make Zonolite brand insulation for millions of U.S. homes - was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. As a result, the local population was devastated.

Libby, which has 2,600 residents, suffers 40 to 80 times the national average in its rate of death from asbestosis, a breathing disorder caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Lung-cancer mortality is 30 percent higher than health officials would expect the town to experience.

Prosecutors detailed the extent of the health problems and the number of deaths blamed on asbestos during a recent trial of mine owner W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives. They were acquitted last month of knowingly allowing residents of Libby to be exposed to asbestos.

The Maryland-based company didn't deny that asbestos came from its mine which closed in 1990, but said it's acted responsibly to clean up the contamination. It paid millions in medical bills for residents of Libby and Troy and agreed last year to pay $250 million to reimburse the EPA for cleanup efforts.

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The EPA has already removed contaminants from more than 1,100 homes in Libby. The agency has been cleaning about 150 properties per year, and at any time cordoned-off homes covered by big tents can be seen in town.

Homeowners must agree to have their residence decontaminated, said Michael Cirian, who runs the local EPA office. The owners of some 800 homes have so far either refused the decontamination or couldn't be located by EPA, he said. Those homes won't be affected by the designation.

The new federal money will speed the home-by-home cleanup of some 900 additional properties in Libby and the nearby town of Troy.

When the EPA has permission to clean a home, they put a plastic tent over the building and workers in asbestos abatement uniforms with respirators vacuum dust from the attic and all the crevices. They also dig up the front and back yard to remove asbestos outside.

Each house takes a few days to decontaminate.

The Health and Human Services Department also said it would spend an additional $6 million on medical assistance for residents suffering from asbestos-related illnesses.

Money for medical care is key, said former mayor Tony Berget. Libby is a remote town, and many people haven't had a lot of money for health problems, he said.

But don't expect the independent-minded people of Libby to talk too much about their medical woes, said Mary Tevebaugh, a retired teacher whose former husband worked in the mine and died of an asbestos-related disease.

"It's like if somebody complains that they have a problem, you tell them so does everybody else," she said.

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