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EPA finds another $4 million

| June 11, 2004 12:00 AM

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

The Libby asbestos Superfund project is getting an additional $4 million for the current calendar year, Environmental Protection Agency officials announced Wednesday.

A portion of the funding will be dedicated to the removal of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite at the former Stimson mill property, now owned by the Lincoln County Port Authority.

The additional money includes $2 million from EPA headquarters and $2 million from the Region 8 budget, said assistant regional administrator Max Dodson. An estimated $500,000 is earmarked for the mill cleanup, which will help get the site ready to provide ³some sort of economic stimulus for Libby,² Dodson said.

³We¹re willing to move in that direction and use our resources at our regional office,² he said.

Meeting with the county commissioners Wednesday morning, Dodson said plans are to assign a dedicated on-scene coordinator to the mill cleanup. The candidate for the job, Craig Myers, has been working at an industrial site in Salt Lake City that was contaminated by Libby vermiculite, Dodson said.

Commissioner Rita Windom told Dodson the announcement is ³really good news.² She emphasized the importance of removing the mill property from the Libby Superfund site once the cleanup is finished.

³We want to see that as definitive as possible, because that is our economic start,² she said.

Dodson said the agency is committed to removing the mill site from the Superfund list.

³Let me assure you we are motivated to do that,² he said.

Local project manager Jim Christiansen cautioned that the process won¹t be quick and easy and will most likely take a few years.

³This isn¹t going to be next year or right away,² he said.

The EPA allotted $17 million to the Libby project for the 2004 fiscal year, which started last October, but actually awarded only $15 million in new funding after an additional $2 million awarded during the previous year was counted as an advance toward the 2004 budget. Dodson declined to hazard a guess as to what Libby will receive for 2005.

³The thing about Superfund funding is it almost changes on a weekly basis,² he said.

Dodson stressed that Libby is the top priority for Region 8 and on a national basis ³is very competitive on any scheme in terms of getting money to the site.²

During a public forum that followed the meeting with the county commissioners, local asbestos victim advocates Gayla Benefield and Les Skramstad were critical of the agency¹s decision to allocate funds to the mill site while the cleanup of contaminated homes remains incomplete.

³We do need economic development in Libby, but the first priority should be safety,² Benefield said.

People should be the first priority, Skramstad said.

³There¹s many people in this town who have been struggling for years to get their houses cleaned up, and all of a sudden we¹re put on the back burner,² he said.