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Residents complain about aspects of EPA cleanup

| June 16, 2006 12:00 AM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

Residents during a Tuesday town meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency expressed concerns about finding vermiculite in their homes after the asbestos cleanup is done.

Others complained about the vacuum cleaners assigned to homes after cleanups. And some are dissatisfied that the Libby cleanup does not include replacing carpeting and removing vermiculite insulation from walls.

"In 10 to 15 years from now, if (a wall) is disturbed, what will it cost homeowners?" Libby victims advocate Gayla Benefield asked Max Dodson.

Dodson, assistant administrator for six states in the EPA's Region 8, noted his agency needs "to look at that."

"Libby is still a number one priority," he said.

Benefield was among more than 100 people who listened to the update on the Libby Asbestos Superfund project initiated in 1999.

The EPA started a cleanup in Libby after it was determined that W.R. Grace, from the early 1960s to 1990, exposed the community to tremolite asbestos contaminating vermiculite that was mined and milled here. More than 200 people have died and another 2,000 have been inflicted with the asbestos-related disease.

As part of the Superfund cleanup, the EPA screened 3,500 properties in Libby, built an asbestos cell at the Lincoln County Landfill and addressed the worst areas first. They included the boat ramp at Riverside Park, Stimson Central Maintenance Building and the Flyway, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe property. So far 640 residential and commercial properties have been cleaned.

The EPA this year will spend $17 million on the cleanup of homes and businesses and nearly $20 million in 2007, Dodson said. Twenty-five percent of the homeowners returned follow-up surveys. Ninety percent indicated they were glad they participated in the cleanup.

For 2007, the EPA will clean 200 more properties, assess cleanup needed in Troy and develop an operations and maintenance plan for contamination left behind.

That's something that concerns Libby's Gordon Sullivan.

"What if you want to remodel your bathroom and you know vermiculite was left behind," Sullivan asked Dodson. "The contractor notifies the homeowner and a licensed asbestos inspector checks to see if it's less than 1 percent. If it's more than 1 percent, it needs to be removed. That adds $5,000 to $10,000 to the cost of your project."

"I'm worried about those 600 people when they find it," he continued. "They'll put it in a plastic bag, throw it in the back of the truck and throw it in the dumpster."

Catherine LeCours, project manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said the primary goal is human health.

"We'll have education programs and a trust fund from the responsible party or state," LeCours said. "Our goal is no cost to the homeowner."

The discussion also focused on "thick" veins of vermiculite found last week by city workers digging a waterline. The former export plant belonging to W.R. Grace between Riverside Park along the Kootenai River and Lee Gehring Field occupied the area. It was cleaned to a depth of 18 inches 5 to 6 years ago.

Workers last week found the vermiculite at about the 2-foot deep mark.

"We have many other hot spots out there," Dodson said. "It will be hard to detect them. It's like a needle in a haystack. We will look at that again."

Also during public comment, Donna Tholen and Jan Meadows complained about the HEPA vacuum cleaners assigned to each home after cleanups. So far, 400 have been distributed.

"It's like a shop vac," Tholen said. "I only use it for spiders."

"I have an issue with the vacuum," Meadows said. "They are a piece of junk. I'm concerned about the children in our community. Please give us something to look forward to."

Dodson promised to look into the vacuum cleaners.

"We will address any unmet needs to headquarters," he said.