Era of EPA’s asbestos cleanup ends, city to receive award

By Tracy McNew


Early last year, EPA announced their final call for investigations and cleanups at residential and commercial properties located in the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

Last week, EPA contractors completed the final scheduled cleanup at the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site. Yes, for real. EPA is done cleaning up Libby after 16 long years.      For Mike Cirian, EPA’s local Remedial Project Manager, it has been a labor of love. “It’s been a lot like raising kids,” he told The Montanian. “There is always something getting broken, no one knows who did what wrong, but we deal with it and in the end, I remember all of the good things that we’ve done here. Libby is a clean town and we have the science to back that up.”

The CDM and ER offices at the Port Authority have closed, you won’t see the familiar orange fencing or the dump trucks hauling materials back to the mine site next spring, and the communities of Libby and Troy have, in essence, been given a clean bill of health and a new lease on our future.

Akin to being cured of a life threatening disease, asbestos contamination here threatened our independent lifestyles, our livelihood working in mining and logging, or commercial tourism opportunities, and most importantly the health of our families and friends. Over 3,000 people have been diagnosed with asbestos related diseases and hundreds have died, but the community has survived and hopefully, we are  stronger and able to overcome more obstacles, for that experience.

Warren Winn, a local that has worked with EPA on five different cleanups over the years reached out the The Montanian to share his experience. His was the last property cleaned. “I don’t agree with everything our government does,” Winn said, “but this is a good thing. It has really helped me.” Winn even ordered a thank you sign that he plans to post on his property to personally recognize EPA, ER and others for their years of cleanup.

EPA is also planning a recognition related to the cleanup. EPA will host an awards ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 29 from noon until 1 p.m. at the K.W. Maki Theatre where they will recognize the City of Libby with a reuse award for their great work on Riverfront Park.

Local vermiculite was discovered in 1881 by gold miners. Legend has it that the vermiculite was inadvertently discovered when a torch, used for light, was set close to the vermiculite rock which heated up and caused it to pop and expand. The popped material became light and airy. Popped vermiculite was soon marketed for it’s fire resistant, lightweight, highly absorbent, and insulating properties. By the 1920s a mine on vermiculite mountain was established, and the Zonolite company used Libby’s vermiculite in all manner of products including attic insulation, a plaster aggregate, concrete, and Terra-Lite for gardening. The mine was purchased by  W.R. Grace in 1963 and it operated until 1990.

EPA responded in 1999 after citizens, local government and the media expressed concerns about asbestos health effects. Vermiculite contamination with Libby Amphibole (LA) asbestos was confirmed, and removals began in 2000. Libby was placed on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL) in Oct. of 2002. Then, according to EPA’s website, “In 2009, for the first time in the history of the agency, EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby to provide federal health care assistance for victims of asbestos-related disease.”

Over the last 18 years, the 8,100 properties in Libby and Troy were systematically tested. According to Cirian, just over 5,000 properties did not need any response action, over 2,600 were cleaned, and over 1.2 million cubic yards of soil were hauled back to the mine site 10 yards at a time. Other asbestos-contaminated materials were placed in a specific landfill cell which will remain open after EPA leaves. A Record of Decision for Libby and Troy’s commercial and residential areas was signed in Feb. 2016 making the final phase of remediation, and now the site will be transferred over to the State of Montana.

The EPA office will remain open for at least another year, Cirian thinks, but Lincoln County’s Asbestos Resource Program will be the main contact. “Everyone should call ARP before doing a remodel or demolition. They have scopes to look in walls for vermiculite insulation, and they can respond in 24 hours,” Cirian told The Montanian.

Funding for future cleanup needs is an ongoing concern being addressed by the County, State DEQ, EPA and others. Economic impacts of cleanup jobs lost will need to be addressed, the transition to State control of the site will take another year, the mine site is still being assessed for feasible remedies, and health impacts will continue because asbestos disease may not occur until 40 years or more after exposure, but a new era is about to begin so take a deep breath of fresh air which according to EPA, is now “nearly 100,000 times lower than when the vermiculite mine and mill were operating.”

According to Cirian, “Its surreal. We have a cleaner, healthier place to live, work and play but lots of good folks will be out of work. Now the future is up to the people of Libby.”

The year’s final Libby asbestos cleanup at a property on Hwy. 2 south of Libby owned by Warren Winn. Photo by Tracy McNew, The Montanian.

Cleanup, tree planting, and the official opening of  Libby’s Riverfront Park in August 2013. Photos courtesy of EPA’s publication Out of the Dust: Recreational Reuse After Vermiculite Mining . The Libby Asbestos Superfund Site in Libby, Montana.