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EPA town meeting to look at cleanup, research

| March 1, 2007 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

The Environmental Protection Agency will host a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at the Memorial Center to provide an update on the status of the Libby vermiculite cleanup and related scientific studies.

Planning for the meeting has been in the works since December, when a report by the EPA's Office of Inspector General criticized the agency for not carrying out toxicological studies to assess the effectiveness its ongoing cleanup of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite.

The two major issues for the agency are the effectiveness of its residential cleanup efforts and "how clean is clean," with regard to ambient air monitoring data, said EPA project manager Paul Peronard.

"We needs some way to be able to put that in context, whether it's good news or bad news," Peronard said.

Increased funding for analysis will be on top of the cleanup budget already in place and won't get in the way of removal of vermiculite from area homes, Peronard said.

"Our approach is going to be about the same," he said.

Some "real results" from the studies will be seen within the year, Peronard said, but putting it all together for a risk assessment will take a bit longer.

"That final version is probably 2010," he said.

The December report called for a toxicity assessment of 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 said, the EPA cannot be sure that its cleanup work is sufficient to protect the health of area residents.

The report recommended 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 criticized 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.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus called the report's findings "an outrage" and said the EPA had "dropped the ball and let us all down."

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