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EPA warns of Highway 37 contamination

| June 10, 2005 12:00 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency is looking into what it is calling significant soil contamination by asbestos along the road shoulder on Montana Highway 37 north of Libby.

"It's not good," said Jim Christiansen, on-site cleanup coordinator for the EPA.

At this time, the EPA's number one concern is highway maintenance workers, he said.

"We're going to have to stop that," Christiansen said. "We've already informed the state highway department."

Based on extensive testing done along the highway, Christiansen said there is no danger to motorists using the highway. Air monitoring tests continue to show "no detect" of asbestos fibers along the right-of-way.

The contamination is limited to the immediate shoulders of the highway right-of-way, he said. And testing done on private property along the highway doesn't reveal anything alarming, either, Christiansen said.

As part of its ongoing work in the area, the agency recently received data showing asbestos contamination along both sides of the road from the north side of the Kootenai River bridge to the Rainy Creek area, where W.R. Grace's vermiculite mining and processing facilities were located. A sampling team found visible vermiculite in several locations along the highway, suggesting the material may have spilled from trucks coming from the mine to the expansion plant that was located between the river and railroad tracks in Libby.

Christiansen said there is considerable information available that convinced him the contamination is from spillage and that vermiculite from the mine was not used as fill or base on the highway or as winter sanding material.

Information from the soil samples only became available recently because the federal agency has made residential cleanup a priority.

Soil samples taken along the road shoulders showed asbestos levels of less than 1 percent, which is EPA's current cleanup trigger. However, every sample showed contamination, Christiansen said.

"That got my attention," he said. "This is really high on my radar but it's really frustrating because it doesn't meet the criteria of emergency response."

Christiansen said the EPA is discussing what steps to take and how they can proceed. The agency is also recommending that area residents avoid using the highway shoulders until the area is cleaned up or until further notice.

Samples taken along the highway south of the bridge and in other locations around Libby, including all dirt alleys in the town, showed no significant contamination, the agency reported.

To help determine potential impacts of the contamination, the EPA reviewed personal air samples taken in 2000-2001 from truck drivers, bikers and walkers using the stretch of highway where the contamination was found. The results showed no significant exposures.

Results were also reviewed from outdoor air samples taken from properties near the highway over the past few years. Other than monitors near the former screening plant, the samples showed no elevated levels of asbestos.

At the end of May, the EPA set up 12 air monitors at various points along the highway and collected samples during the day while vehicles used the road. The samples showed no elevated levels of asbestos.

The agency is still considering the shoulder contamination to be significant and Christiansen said he is concerned about people such as highway maintenance workers who may use or disturb the road shoulders.