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EPA goes mum to all media

| August 12, 2005 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

Environmental Protection Agency employees working on the Libby asbestos cleanup projects have been barred by headquarters from speaking to the media due to concerns about pending criminal charges against W.R. Grace and a number of current and former company officials, the agency's Peggy Churchill told the Lincoln County Commissioners on Wednesday.

The new policy was announced after the television news show "Nightline" sought interviews with EPA staff for a program about the situation in Libby.

"It turned out that headquarters decided because of the criminal investigation that they did not want us being interviewed by those guys," Churchill told the commissioners.

The new policy requires that all questions from local or national media be directed to an agency spokesperson in Washington, D.C., who will likely have to contact the people involved in the cleanup to get the answers. Churchill said she expects to see the policy will change once the difficulties inherent in the new system become apparent.

In other business, Churchill briefed the commissioners on EPA staffing changes and provided an update on progress of the local cleanup. Churchill said she has assumed most of the day-to-day management duties while project manager Jim Christiansen focuses his work on the record of decision for the project.

Churchill introduced the commissioners to Mike Cirian, who recently joined the EPA's local staff as field project manager. Cirian's background is in environmental engineering and construction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He spent the last eight years working in Wisconsin. He will be managing local construction work for the EPA, Churchill said.

Wendy Thomi, the agency's community involvement coordinator for the Libby project, announced that she will be leaving for a temporary assignment working on the agency's project at the World Trade Center site in New York. She said a new community involvement coordinator will be assigned to Libby by the regional office in Denver.

More than 100 homes have been cleaned toward this year's goal of 200, Churchill said, bringing the total number of cleaned properties to around 500.

At the current rate of 200 per year, the cleanup will take about four more years, she said.

The EPA is planning a public meeting for Oct. 11 to provide a general update on the project. The meeting is intended to be similar to the large public meetings held early in the agency's involvement in Libby, Thomi said. She said the hope is that people who don't normally come to regular Community Advisory Group meetings will attend.

"We really want to get a lot of people there," she said. "If you only have time for one meeting on this site and asbestos issues, make this the meeting."