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Visit to Libby could be on EPA's agenda

by Brandon Roberts & Western News
| January 19, 2009 11:00 PM

The new Barack Obama presidential administration will bring a changing of the guard for federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency where nominee Lisa Jackson awaits legislative confirmation.

Senior senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that Jackson, if confirmed, has accepted his request to visit Libby.

“Several years ago, I made a promise to the people of Libby that I would do all I could to help them,” Baucus said in a Jan. 14 press release. “If confirmed, I look forward to working together with Ms. Jackson and will make sure that she and the EPA do right by the people of Libby.”

Jackson pledged that if confirmed, she will:

• Meet with EPA staff on the ground in Libby about progress – what has been done, what needs to be done?

• Meet with Libby residents and discuss their needs.

• Reconsider EPA’s decision to not declare Libby a public health emergency and review a report within 90 days of confirmation to Baucus.

Leroy Thom, Center for Asbestos Related Diseases vice chairman, said a visit from the EPA administrator would be a very important step.

“Words are one thing,” Thom said. “If she can come out here and see firsthand – to be a participant at the community level and hear from the people – it looks promising.

“Baucus, as usual, has continued to champion for the community of Libby,” Thom added.

At EPW Committee hearings this past Sept. 25, Baucus called on the EPA to declare a public health emergency in Libby, outlining what ramifications, both positive and negative, that the declaration would have. 

“The EPA has failed to understand the needs of some of our most vulnerable communities,” Baucus said. “Nowhere is this more true than in Libby where EPA’s failure to declare a public health emergency has hindered EPA’s cleanup efforts and denied medical care to hundreds of residents. EPA must make Libby a priority – it’s the right thing to do.”

The Community Advisory Group is finalizing a letter of appreciation for Baucus’s dedication to Libby.

“Because of your leadership and with your encouragement, the Libby CAG will continue to push for a declaration of a public health emergency,” the letter states.

Bill Patten, chief executive officer at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital and CAG member, sent a request for the PHE declaration last September on the CAG’s behalf. On Oct. 10, Patten received a response from Susan Parker Bodine, EPA assistant administrator.

She stated that a PHE “would not have provided EPA with any additional funding, nor would it authorize EPA to provide health-care services.

“… EPA determined that it was not necessary to declare (PHE) for EPA to remove Libby amphibole asbestos and lower exposure to (asbestos) throughout Libby,” Parker wrote.

It is the hope of CAG and Baucus that this prerogative will change with a new EPA administrator. However, there is a shared understanding of the political hurdles that must be cleared.

That lesson was learned when former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman supported a PHE for Libby in March 2003. However, after an April 9 meeting with the Office of Management and Budget, the request fell through. Whitman resigned from her post on June 27, 2003.

“I think (Whitman) had her heart in the right place and hopefully we will see the same out of Jackson and she won’t get her hands tied,” Thom said.