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EPA chief visits Libby

| August 18, 2004 12:00 AM

EPA administrator Mike Leavitt arrived in Libby Friday afternoon for a brief surprise visit.

Leavitt was in town for less than three hours but was greeted at the Libby Airport by television, print and radio media.

He did take 10 minutes to talk to Libby asbestos victim and cleanup advocate Les Skramstad before briefly addressing the media and then leaving for town.

Skramstad impressed on Leavitt the importance of getting the cleanup of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite done in a timely fashion.

³I told him we were fighting for our lives here, our very lives to get this thing cleaned up here as quick as we can because time is of the essence,² he said.

Skramstad thanked local EPA project manager Jim Christiansen for personally bringing Leavitt over to see him as he waited at the airport fence. He said Christiansen had promised him a chance to talk with the former Utah governor and was true to his word.

Leavitt said he had promised Sen. Max Baucus that he would visit but his schedule was making it difficult to find time to visit Libby.

While visiting Seattle, Leavitt said he saw the opportunity.

³I wound up with an afternoon open and I was only an hour away,² he said. ³It isn¹t perfect but as Les said time is of the essence.²

Baucus was unable to come to Libby but his Kalispell-based field director, Rebecca Manna, accompanied Leavitt during his visit.

Libby Mayor Tony Berget, who spent some time with Leavitt as he toured cleanup sites around town, said he was initially concerned about the impromptu and secretive nature of the visit but felt better after Leavitt got to spend some time on the ground.

³I really feel that he got a sense of what¹s going on here,² he said.

Although the EPA is involved with 1,200 Superfund sites across the country, the Libby clean-up is spoken of often at the Washington, D.C., headquarters, Leavitt said.

Libby is prominent not only because of the size of the project but the number of people who have been adversely affected, he said.

Leavitt noted that President Bush has asked Congress for an additional $155 million for Superfund cleanups.

Leavitt said he hoped to return and talk to the people.

³I asked Governor Leavitt to come to Montana because I wanted him to see with his own eyes the devastation asbestos has caused,² Baucus said. ³I wanted him to look into the eyes of people in Libby — mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives — and hear their stories. I hope he took the time to do that on this visit, and I¹m glad he has committed to coming back to Libby soon.²

Baucus said he has done his best to secure federal funds for health care, cleanup and economic development in Libby and will continue to work to help get Libby a clean bill of health for the long term.

³I would hope that now Governor Leavitt has seen firsthand the scale of this tragedy, he will do everything he can to get cleanup efforts back on track,² Baucus said. ³I¹m fearful the EPA¹s momentum in Libby has been slipping, and I call upon Governor Leavitt to put Libby at the top of his list of priorities. Folks in Libby deserve no less. They have been through enough.²