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Baucus threatens subpoena for EPA documents

| August 8, 2007 12:00 AM

By KYLE McCLELLAN and CAROL HOLOBOFF The Western News

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Libby Monday to a contingent of regional media, a frustrated senator and some outspoken residents.

Two bodyguards and a layer of media agents escorted EPA Administrator Steven Johnson into a city hall conference room where Sen. Max Baucus and residents demanded to know why toxicity studies have not been completed and why the federal government decided not to declare Libby a Public Health Emergency.

"I think it's critical that the people of Libby get justice," Baucus said.

The senator noted that the EPA made a "big mistake" by never having done the studies when remediation efforts began five years ago.

Baucus also cited a 2002 St. Louis Post Dispatch article that alleged the White House denied the EPA's request to declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby.

Baucus asked Johnson to promise to provide the documents relating to that decision.

"Otherwise, I'm going to have to pursue a subpoena. The people of Libby deserve to have those documents," Baucus said.

Under the designation of a Public Health Emergency, Libby would receive federal funds to provide medical treatment for those afflicted with asbestos-related diseases and a more extensive remediation process.

"I'm going to pursue this until justice is done for the people of Libby. Mr. Johnson, I don't mean to deride you personally. I'm just making some very candid observations because it's in the pursuit of truth, it's in the pursuit of getting the proper health care. You and I are public servants. We're the hired hands here. We work for everyone here in Libby.

The document handover will be a tedious process because the EPA is in the middle of a criminal and civil trial with the W.R. Grace Company.

"I want to assure you that we at the EPA and the federal government, as aggressively as I know how to do, are pursuing W.R. Grace for what happened here," Johnson said to applause.

The EPA must sift through thousands of files without compromising the trial, according to Susan Bodine, Assistant Administrator sitting to the left of Johnson.

She said her staff has invested about160 hours searching documents, to which Baucus replied, "How many employees are there at the EPA?"

"Seventeen-thousand," Johnson said.

Baucus responded, "So, I would think that 160 hours is not a huge burden for 17,000 employees."

Johnson was eager to convince the crowd he wasn't just another government bureaucrat. He said twice that he is the only scientist to ever head the EPA.

"This is a tragic situation. We've made progress, we continue to make progress, We've cleaned up 857 sites now and we've removed over 450,000 tons of soil to be remediated."

Johnson said the toxicity studies were underway to determine "how clean is clean."

He said $17 million has been invested in cleanup and another $9 million in scientific studies.

Those studies should provide a clue as to the next step after the completion of the remediation process, which Johnson said should be in 2011.