Libby, Mont. – The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time has determined there is a public health emergency in a contaminated community, targeting a Montana town Wednesday for immediate federal attention.
The announcement by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson involving Libby, Mont., will not result in an evacuation, but will require an extensive, home-by-home cleanup and better health protections for residents with asbestos-related illnesses. The EPA will invest at least $125 million over the next five years in the ongoing clean up.
Jackson called Libby a "tragic public health situation" that has not received the recognition it deserves from the federal government for far too long.
Asbestos contamination from a now-closed vermiculite mine near Libby has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people and illnesses of thousands more. Miners carried asbestos home on their clothes, vermiculite once covered school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens.
Jackson said the announcement was the first time the EPA has made such a determination under authority of the 1980 Superfund law that requires the clean up of contaminated sites.
Investigations performed by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry have found that occurrences of asbestosis, a lung condition, near Libby are staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979 to 1998, Jackson said. EPA is working with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is making available a $6 million grant to provide asbestos-related medical care to Libby and residents of Troy, another Montana town.
"Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation on the ground, we will continue to move aggressively on the cleanup efforts and protect the health of the people," Jackson said. "We're here to help create a long and prosperous future for this town."
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the emergency declaration a great day for Libby, which he said "had to wait year after year as the last administration failed to determine that a public health emergency exists."
The EPA had previously declared the area a Superfund site, but had not determined there was a public health emergency until Wednesday.
Last fall, Baucus accused the Bush administration of orchestrating a "conspiracy" for not declaring an emergency in Libby. He charged that former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman was prepared to declare an emergency in 2002 but was overruled by the Bush White House.
Baucus called the health announcement especially welcome, given what he called a disappointing verdict last month in a criminal case related to the asbestos contamination. W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of the northwestern Montana town to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.
Maryland-based W.R. Grace has said the company and its former executives acted properly.
"Today is the day that after years of work we were able to succeed in getting this (emergency determination) done," Baucus said at a news conference at EPA headquarters. "We will continue to push until Libby has a clean bill of health."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the declaration long-overdue.
"We still have a long way to do right by the folks in Libby. Working together with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, we're making very good progress," Tester said.