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EPA collecting samples for air quality study

| December 5, 2006 11:00 PM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected this week to release its most recent asbestos air quality reports.

Samples are being collected from 14 metal boxes set up in Libby. The study began in September and will continue for at least one year. Results will be made public quarterly.

"We are trying to find out what the ambient air quality is in Libby to asbestos fibers," said Mike Cirian, on-site remediation project manager for the EPA's Superfund project in Libby. "It's more than just to see what's going on in Libby, but to make sure we have all our bases covered and to make sure our remediation is effective."

The EPA since 1999 has been cleaning up asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in Libby, which was mined and processed here by W.R. Grace from the 1920s to 1990. More than 200 have died from the contamination and some 2,000 suffer from related illnesses.

So far, contractors have cleaned 794 of 1,500 properties. Another 160 will be done in 2007.

"That leaves us with 550," Cirian said. "We expect to finish the cleanup within a couple of years."

As part of the multi-million dollar cleanup, the outdoor air must be tested. The EPA received permission from property owners to install the 14 metal boxes within a network covering the community. One, for example, is located at Mac's Market and another is outside the EPA's office on Mineral Avenue.

Samples will be collected on a five-day on/five-day off schedule, Cirian said. EPA contractors will check monitoring stations every six to eight hours. Each station contains an electric pump that runs continuously during the five-day sampling period.

Information will go to the agency's technical team in Denver.

"They will determine if there's enough represented or if we need more data," Cirian said.

It's important that samples are collected during a typical year of weather for Libby.

"If we have an unusually wet year and it rains all summer long, that would be abnormal for Libby," he said. "We are looking for what would be an average year."

Similar air quality tests done in 2003 or 2004 were inconclusive.

"We didn't have enough of a sample," Cirian said.

When the first quarter results are available, the public will be notified. They could discussed during a Libby Area Technical Assistance Group meeting in mid-December.