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EPA to provide future cleanup details

| October 14, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Local residents came to a meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday hoping for details about how the Libby asbestos cleanup will be carried out in the future.

Project manager Jim Christiansen couldn't give specifics, but he did promise full disclosure once a strategy is determined.

"You'll have a succinct report on what our long-term plan is," Christiansen said.

All the documents EPA used to reach the decision will be available to the public, he added.

Christiansen was asked by a citizen how EPA will keep noxious weeds out of topsoil used to repair lawns dug up for vermiculite removal. He also was asked how companies that contract with EPA to do the cleaning will be affected by possible changes in procedures.

Christiansen said the EPA must follow strict guidelines in drafting a proposed plan. The process includes analyzing studies made during the past summer to see how successful previous cleanups of residences have been. Until those results are known, Christiansen said, it isn't possible — or legal — to speculate about future methods of removing contamination.

After a proposed plan is written, the public will have 60 days to comment either verbally or in writing. That input will be used to craft the final document for the future cleanup process, known as the Record of Decision.

Christiansen estimated it will take three or four months after the proposed plan is released until the Record of Decision will be published.

Among the questions still unanswered are whether asbestos in the walls of homes and businesses can safely be left in place, and whether carpets should be removed.

Christiansen outlined the history of EPA's involvement in Libby, from the beginning emergency response to activities over the past few years. Cleanup began in 2002 with 18 of the most heavily contaminated properties targeted, he said.

A total of 157 homes were cleaned in 2003 as well as 170 homes in 2004 and 180 so far this year. Christiansen said the 2005 goal is to clean 200 homes.

He acknowledged some of the negative aspects of EPA's work as well as some of the successes.

Among the positives, Christian said, is the fact that more than 550 residences and commercial buildings have been cleaned, and the cost of cleaning has come down as EPA learned more about the process.

The agency has developed a new soil testing method that is more accurate than previous procedures, and is being adopted by other states, he said.

Another bright spot is that checks of past cleanup jobs have shown results "at the levels we needed to see" to indicate long-term safety, Christiansen said.

"The bottom line is that Libby is a safer place to be than it was in 1999," he said. "It may not be perfect, but it's going in that direction."

However, he said the fact that cleanup funding is granted on a year-to-year basis is a problem.

"People don't understand why asbestos cleanup is as expensive as it is," Christiansen said.

He admitted the construction contracts initially used in Libby were too generic to fit the situation here. They've been rewritten, and costs have come down as a result, Christiansen said.

"We didn't discuss it properly beforehand," he said. "Some people got surprised."

The EPA's on-site coordinator also apologized because the agency occasionally muffed its communication attempts with citizens.

"We forget to call you back sometimes," he said. "It's hard to meet everybody's needs, but we are trying."

Christiansen said EPA has spent about $140 million on the Libby project. Funding to continue the cleanup has been authorized by top EPA officials for 2006, but it is subject to congressional budget decisions after that.

Max Dodson, the agency's deputy regional director, pledged to fight for enough money to finish the job.

"We believe in this cleanup in Libby," he said. "We will not back down if there is a need to increase funding.

"We are in competition with other projects. But because of the human toll in Libby it will always be a national priority site."