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TAG pushes CRS concept now not later

| November 15, 2005 11:00 PM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

The Technical Advisory Group is looking at starting discussions on needed procedures at both the county and city level to avoid circumstances that happened with the remodeling at the Country Pizza building last month in Libby.

A building permit for remodeling work had been issued to the owner of Country Pizza's building by the city. He began moving vermiculite attic insulation out of the way of his work area and the resulting dust covered the pizza restaurant downstairs forcing the EPA to respond to clean the restaurant before it could reopen.

TAG has been pushing a proposal to create a community resource specialist to repond to similar problems with homeowners and commercial building owners after the EPA completes the Superfund cleanup and leaves the area.

At the Nov. 8 TAG meeting, committee members said the community shouldn't wait until the EPA leaves but begin instituting a program now that includes rules and regulations to keep people from uncovering asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and exposing themselves, their families and the public to toxic tremolite asbestos dust.

Committee members agreed the effort starts with public education.

"We just want to make sure what happened to Country Pizza doesn't happen again," said Jan Meadows. "We want to make sure everyone in Libby understands you just can't start digging holes and pushing things around."

A TAG subcommittee is working on a presentation for the county. The city has already shown interest in the establishment of a community resource specialist. Mike Noble said the presentation will be shared with Troy and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, who will be in charge of the Troy vermiculite cleanup.

EPA representative Peggy Churchill said a consensus with the city and county should be reached and outlined through a memorandum of understanding. The EPA is encouraging the CRS idea and has offered to provide funding.

"That is where we are going," said Gayla Benefield, TAG chair. "The CRS position is needed."

There is agreement on the need for the position but the question remains how, said Helen Clarke, who is chairing the CRS subcommittee.

Gerry Henningsen, the technical adviser hired by TAG in September, has recommended bringing Tom Dunlop, director of Aspen-Pitkin County Environmental Health Department to Libby. Dunlop was involved in writing needed rules and regulations for the Colorado city and county during Superfund cleanup of an old mine.

"Dunlop has traveled around talking to communities about operations and management that is the least imposing on cities after the EPA leaves town," Henningsen said via a teleconference call. "He has a unique way of motivating people."

Churchill noted that initial EPA samples of the dust in Country Pizza have come back non-detect. While the problem hasn't been good for the restaurant's owner, there has been some benefit from the episode.

"Thinking about this has brought the problem to people's attention," she said. "That was good."

The owner of the building came to the EPA intially and the federal agency asked him to wait on the remodeling, but he said he couldn't, Churchill said.

He was not in violation of current regulations, she said.

"There's a real fine line there," Churchill said. "We just want to work with people."

TAG board member Les Skramstad said too much vermiculite is being left behind in walls, beneath buildings and lawns and at the mine site. That represents continuing problems for the community and a safety problem, he said.

"Anything we leave behind is just prolonging the agony," Skramstad said. "Here we are poking holes in the air with our fingers saying we're doing a nice job but it's still out there. There's a mountain of it out in the open up there."

LeRoy Thom pointed out that the technical adviser will help the community make the argument for removal or "what we can do to make it safer."

Dr. Brad Black agreed but warned about closing the door on clean-up if the science supports it.

"It takes time," Benefield said. "We're technically treading water but getting ahead a little every day."

She said TAG is moving forward and doing everything possible to push the EPA.

The next TAG meeting is Tuesday, Dec. 6. Henningsen is tentatively scheduled to attend that meeting.