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Report criticizes EPA for lack of research

| December 7, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

A report by the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog organization takes the agency to task for not carrying out toxicological studies to assess the effectiveness of the ongoing cleanup of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in the Libby area.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General conducted its investigation of the cleanup at the request of both of Montana's U.S. senators. The report, issued Tuesday, says a toxicity assessment is needed for the type of asbestos occurring as a contaminant in the vermiculite mined and processed in and around Libby from the 1920s until 1990. Without that assessment, the report says, the EPA cannot be sure that its cleanup work is sufficient to protect the health of area residents.

The report recommends that the EPA fund and execute a comprehensive toxicity assessment to determine the effectiveness of the cleanup and whether more action is necessary.

In addition, the report criticizes two EPA public information documents for offering advice to people on how to handle vermiculite in the home without sufficient safety information on which to base that advice.

In an accompanying memorandum to EPA administrators, acting inspector general Bill Roderick requested a written response, including a corrective action plan with milestone dates, within 30 days.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus called the report's findings "an outrage."

"Heads should roll at EPA," Baucus said. "The people in Libby and the American taxpayers deserve better, much better."

Baucus said he would do "whatever it takes to get this situation fixed immediately," including directing the EPA to complete a toxicity review through legislation if necessary. He also said he will call for a congressional hearing into the situation as a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA.

Baucus called the EPA's work in Libby "morally and ethically reprehensible."

"I'm stunned," he said. "The EPA has dropped the ball and let us all down. I expect them to fix this mess. And those responsible for EPA shortcomings should be held accountable."

The lack of a toxicity study is largely attributable to the EPA's focus on cleanup work as the priority for spending the money it has available, said Mike Cirian, the agency's on-scene remedial project manager in Libby.

"Trying to get extra funding, that's been the problem," Cirian said. "See, we're not allowed to lobby for funding. We can't go to Congress and say, 'If you give us this extra money then we can do this.'"

The agency will need to "find that medium" between cleanup and research, Cirian said.

"We can't say that it's clean, but we can't say that it isn't, either," Cirian said. "In my opinion, Libby is cleaner today than it was seven years ago."

The EPA began work in Libby in late 1999 following reports of lingering asbestos contamination associated with W.R. Grace's former vermiculite mining and processing operations. The cleanup, which started with the removal of visible vermiculite in places that represented the greatest risk to public health and which is now focused on the removal of vermiculite insulation from homes, is expected to last another three to five years.