An Associated Press investigation discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of clearing asbestos concentrated in Libby, Montana — the deadliest Superfund site in America — has known for at least three years that piles of wood chips and bark people put in their yards and parks contained asbestos.
According to an AP story published today, the EPA “did not stop removal of the material” until reporters began investigating in early March.
The levels of the contamination and its effects on humans are not known. According to the story, “EPA documents obtained by the AP showed that the agency found potentially deadly asbestos fibers in four of 20 samples taken from the piles of scrap wood in 2007.”
The piles came from a now-closed timber mill that processed trees harvested from forests tainted with fibers from the mine operated by W.R. Grace, which mined vermiculite to make insulation. Later, it was revealed that insulation was riddled with asbestos. Inhaling the fibers led to the deaths of at least 400 people and sickened more than 1,700 in this small Western Montana town. The EPA has been in charge of cleanup in Libby for 11 years.
According to the article:
The wood chips and bark became a popular item for anyone in Libby looking to add some landscaping touches to their yards, and for contractors who packaged the product and sold it around the country.
Local officials estimate that 1,000 tons were used in landscaping and for erosion control in Libby. Over the past decade, as much as 15,000 tons were sold and hauled out of town to destinations unknown, according to the economic development official who was selling it.
The EPA is now scrambling to gauge the public health risk and is preparing to issue guidelines about how residents should handle the wood, including warnings not to move or work with the material when it’s dry to avoid stirring up asbestos. But the agency has decided it won’t track down where the chips went, saying it no longer has jurisdiction because the material is now classified as a commercial product.
The EPA’s press office declined repeated requests from the AP to interview senior officials within the agency’s Superfund program about removal of the material.
The agency instead offered a written statement saying its prior tests on the material provided “incomplete information” and were too limited to indicate an imminent danger.
The local official who was selling the wood and bark, Paul Rummelhart, dismissed concerns, saying they unnecessarily threatened to undermine economic development in the Libby area, where roughly one in five people are unemployed.
“I’ve got a file that’s three-feet thick on all the (asbestos) sampling that’s been going on,” Rummelhart said. “If you have a few hits, so what?”
Federal officials have acknowledged that removal of the bark went on for years without their knowledge. Yet the agency absolved the on-scene contractor, CDM, of responsibility, saying the company’s workers were not charged with monitoring movement of material into and out of the former mill site.
Read the full article in the Missoulian.