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Baucus pursues funding for golf course cleanup

by Carol Holoboff Western News
| March 4, 2008 11:00 PM

Sen. Max Baucus believes the vermiculite found at a Libby Elementary School last week is a perfect example of the need for Libby's asbestos exposure to be declared a public health emergency.

If this declaration had been made earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency would have had clear authority to clean the vermiculite out of the walls of Asa Wood Elementary School and the walls of all the homes, schools and businesses in Libby. Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before something like this happens again, unless a public health emergency is declared and every building in Libby gets the cleaning it deserves. This problem is not going to go away on its own.

“While the exposure of school children to vermiculite is particularly egregious, no resident of Libby, young or old, should be exposed to this poison. I want the entire town to be cleaned up, and that includes the golf course. I've encouraged Steven Johnson to pursue the funding to make sure every Montanan will have the opportunity to play rounds in complete safety. EPA needs to do the job,” stated Baucus on March 3, 2008.

A small hole, three inches in diameter, discovered in the exterior wall of Asa Wood Elementary School in Libby on Friday, Feb. 22, not only released some vermiculite onto the school playground, but like an untreated abscess that has festered too long, spewed forth what might be a systemic threat. According to some, the diseased system is the EPA.

Marjorie Johnson, principal at Asa Wood Elementary School, said, “On Friday, Feb. 22, during the 2:10 p.m. recess, playground monitors discovered a hole in an exterior wall and saw that insulation material containing vermiculite was on the playground.”

It is assumed that earlier in the month a piece of equipment that was removing snow on the playground bumped into the building and made a small hole that was hidden by the remaining snow. When the snow in the hole began to melt the vermiculite spilled from the exterior wall onto the playground.

Two unnamed teachers saw one or two, unidentifiable, students playing with the vermiculite and immediately went to Johnson's office.

“I had no idea the stuff was in the walls or that it was hazardous, but I called the school superintendent, Kirby Maki, and within 15 minutes he contacted Mike Cirian from the Environmental Protection Agency,” Johnson said. “Three hours later, the spill was cleaned up and the hole was sealed. I stayed on the school grounds until all the students had left for the day.”

Cirian, the EPA's on-site remedial project manager in Libby, helped draft a letter to notify parents with children who attend the school about the incident. He also met with teachers and children at the school to talk about vermiculite. A story in the Missoulian on Thursday, Feb. 28, credited Cirian with saying, “We know that excessive exposure to asbestos over long periods of time can lead to cancer-related illnesses.” Although he said he did not know if the vermiculite posed any danger to the child(ren) who touched it, he put on protective gear so he could handle and show the youngsters what vermiculite looks like during his presentation at the school.

Gordon Sullivan, past technical advisior to Libby Area Asbestos Technical Advisory Group, and an dvocate for asbestos victims, said he cannot believe that Cirian, who is as informed as any individual can be about the different types of asbestos, would make such a benign statement.

“There is no established threshold for a safe level of asbestos exposure and because amphibole asbestos tends not to break down in the body and stays in the lung area, even a small dose over time may be lethal,” Sullivan said.

Cirian admits he probably should have said more.

“I am being chastised for everything I did. I didn't put the stuff there, I helped remove the problem. I don't know of any other school in the country that would have been cleaned up by the EPA within three hours of a report,” Cirian said.

Maki, who said he is unable to identify the children who handled the vermiculite because, “Those little kids are all about the same size and short of hypnotizing the playground monitors, I don't know how I can make them remember which child it was.”

Others question why those kids who were exposed aren't going to be tracked. Why is the seriousness of the issue being played down? Maki and Johnson believe some parents called their representatives in Washington, who then released the story to the press and Maki said he welcomes the media coverage, especially now when discussions about building a new elementary building are taking place.

Cirian said he notified Baucus, but Baucus' press secretary denied the senator contacted the media. However, Baucus may welcome the media attention because he has been upset for some time that the EPA never declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby. Such a declaration would have made Libby homes and buildings a top priority for cleanup and opened the way for medical care for residents.

When Stephen Johnson, head of the EPA, was in Libby with Baucus in August 2007, he said a declaration of a Public Health Emergency for the Libby area would not solve Libby's problems. Baucus, at that time threatened to subpoena all documents related to, then head of EPA, Christie Todd Whitman's decision not to declare Libby a Public Health Emergency. Lincoln County commissioners have testified that Whitman assured them a public health emergency would be declared but according to charges made by Baucus, the Bush White House pressured Whitman and the EPA not to do so because of the millions of dollars it would cost. On Wednesday, Baucus said “I think heads should roll at EPA.”

Libby's asbestos disaster was only given credence after media exposure forced the government to step in. Former Montana Gov. Judy Martz declared Libby a Superfund Site in 2001, but there are those who worry that Montana wasted its one Silver Bullet. Sullivan said the decisions made by the EPA have been based on cost, not risk. The decisions to leave vermiculite in the walls of homes, to not remove carpeting, to leave known contaminated areas uncleaned and unposted, etc., would not have been made if a declaration of Public Health Emergency had been made.

“When the EPA exits Libby, if vermiculite is left in “identified” areas in their Record of Decision, they should be held just as accountable as W. R. Grace who also denied any clear and present danger,” Sullivan said. We are $165 million into the cleanup project in Libby and we are no better off. After the Clean Air act of 1990, asbestos was listed as a ‘hazardous air pollutant.' It is listed on the EPA's ‘community right to know' list. Asbestos was removed from thousands of American schools during the late 1980s as a result of federal and state legislation, but not from Asa Wood? Are we safe or not? Where will we find the next hole? The Environmental Protection Agency, like the little Dutch boy, cannot stem the flood of consequences with a thumb in the dike much longer.”