EPA Knew Montana Town’s Scrap Piles Contained Asbestos

By MATTHEW BROWN | July 21, 2011

Federal regulators knew potentially contaminated bark and wood chips were being sold from a Superfund site in the asbestos-tainted town of Libby, Mont., for three years before they stopped the practice, according to a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

The Democrat asked for an investigation into the contaminated scrap piles at a defunct timber mill in response to an Associated Press story earlier this month that detailed how the wood chips and bark had been widely used as landscaping material by residents and government officials.

Asbestos from a W.R. Grace mine in Libby has killed an estimated 400 people. It’s still unknown how potent the timber mill scraps were, but their prevalence around town has stoked fears of recontamination amid a government clean up that has cost more than $370 million.

The EPA previously said it learned last fall that the wood chips and bark stockpiled at the former Stimson Lumber mill were being sold by a local economic development official. In the July 14 letter to Baucus, the agency said it first found out about the sales through an October 2007 report on asbestos at the mill site.

The EPA found asbestos in samples it took from the piles in 2007 but never quantified how much. The agency is now going back and trying to gauge the health risk. Results from additional testing are expected this summer.

“EPA needs to understand it has a responsibility to earn Libby’s trust and that means going above and beyond to keep folks informed,” Baucus said in a statement. “Priority number one is making sure folks are safe, and these new tests will help us figure out if the wood chips are dangerous and whether more steps need to be taken to protect the community.”

During the 2007 testing, four of 20 samples taken from the wood chips piles showed the presence of asbestos. Air samples from the site were negative. The results did not trigger further investigation at the time, but EPA regional administrator Jim Martin said the agency is now taking a second look at the piles.

Those will include tests designed to detect potential threats to homeowners.

The agency plans to re-analyze archived samples from its 2007 site investigation and to conduct a new round of “activity based sampling” to see if working with the material stirs up dangerous asbestos fibers.

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