EPA blamed for delays in asbestos study in Montana

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm •  Published: April 18, 2013
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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Internal investigators faulted the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday for years of delays in completing health studies needed to guide the cleanup of a Montana mining town where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General said in a report that the studies are necessary to determine whether expensive, ongoing cleanup efforts are working in the town of Libby.

The area near the northwest corner of the state, about 50 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, was declared a public health emergency in 2009, a decade after federal regulators first responded to concerns over asbestos dust that came from a W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.

The vermiculite was used as insulation in millions of homes across the U.S.

At least $447 million has been spent on the cleanup and the town remains under the first-of-its-kind emergency declaration issued by then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The deaths among residents are expected to continue for decades due to the long latency of asbestos-related diseases.

The inspector General first raised concerns about the government's failure to figure out the danger posed by Libby asbestos more than six years ago, at the prodding of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and former Sen. Conrad Burns. After earlier denying proposals to carry out a formal risk assessment, the agency in 2007 said it would be done by 2010.

It's still at work on the document, with completion now slated for late 2014.

"That should have been the first thing they did," Libby Mayor Doug Roll said Thursday. "When something hurting people and in this case killing them you need to find out what's toxic."

In Thursday's report, investigators attributed the delays to competing priorities within the agency, contracting problems and unanticipated work that came up as the process unfolded.

For his part, EPA Acting Regional Administrator Howard Cantor said the agency strongly disagrees with many of the Inspector General's conclusions.

Cantor said the risk and toxicity studies are complex endeavors that need to be done properly to make sure Libby's residents are protected.



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