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EPA boss takes whirlwind tour

| August 26, 2005 12:00 AM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

EPA administrator Steve Johnson was given a whirlwind tour Wednesday of the Libby superfund site and took time to meet with doctors from the Center for Asbestos Related Disease as well as representatives from victims of asbestos-related disease.

At Libby Airport, Johnson said he was "here to look, listen and learn."

The recently appointed administrator said he had been reading reports of the Libby cleanup and he has seen photographs.

"I wanted to come and see firsthand what's happening," Johnson said. "I want to make sure the citizens of Libby know that this is a national priority."

Also, Johnson said he was invited to come to Libby by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, and later requested by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus

"I know a lot about asbestos and have an extensive knowledge based on its health effects," he said.

Johnson has been with the EPA for 25 years. Prior to being named administrator in May, Johnson was acting administrator, deputy administrator or acting deputy administrator of the agency since July 2003. Prior to that he worked in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances in various management positions

When asked about the EPA's recent ruling that all employees working on the Libby project not talk to the media, Johnson said, he has since instructed Region 8 officials to "strike a balance" in communications with the media.

"We do have to be sensitive about the court case," said Region 8 administrator Robby Roberts, traveling with Johnson.

And Johnson's press secretary, Eryn Witcher, said "It was entirely appropriate to talk about the cleanup."

Johnson was given a tour of the Port authority properties, former W.R. Grace export site, which also was the location of the Libby youth baseball fields, the former Grace screening plant site, the hospital helipad, the Libby High School athletic fields and Eva Thompson's home, where the agency is cleaning up asbestos-contaminated soil.

"He was really interested in the amount of sickness we have and what the outcome has been," said Gayla Benefield, victims' advocate. "I told him the disease is not what you see in shipyard workers."

At the football field and former little league fields, Benefield said Johnson was made to understand that many youngsters were exposed to vermiculite