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'Rumple Report' finally goes public

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| May 7, 2009 12:00 AM

An internal memo criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of asbestos in Libby was released to the public last week under less stringent Freedom of Information Act guidelines set by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Cory Rumple of the Office of Inspector General division of the EPA reported three years ago the results of his investigation into Libby’s cleanup in a memo that has since been referred to as the “Rumple Report.”

Libby residents and others had repeatedly requested that the EPA release the document but were unsuccessful until Tuesday, a week after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit against the OIG division of the EPA for not making the document public.

“The Rumple Report points out that the EPA has not really kept on track in doing a cleanup in a way that is protective of human health,” said Dr. Brad Black of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease. “We have known this but it validates the feelings of the community.”

The OIG division of the EPA opened a preliminary criminal investigation in March 2006 of EPA operations in Libby based on allegations that the federal agency failed to use scientific standards for cleanup and of alleged contractor misconduct.

Rumple reported that he found no criminal activity, but expressed concern over lack of communication between contractors overseeing the cleanup and scientists drafting the risk assessment, the lack of scientific data on the toxicity of Libby-amphibole asbestos, and the dissemination of pamphlets that minimized risks of asbestos.

Rumple suggested that the OIG further assess the issues that he brought up. Seven months later, at the insistence of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), the EPA released a formal report that brought up the same issues as Rumple’s memo. It recommended that the EPA execute a Libby-amphibole asbestos toxicity assessment and correct any documents regarding the safety of asbestos because they could not be supported without a toxicity assessment.

“My first reaction (to the Rumple Report) was that there was no evidence of criminal activity at the site, and that was a very positive finding,” said Libby team leader Victor Ketellapper, who did not work on the Superfund site during Rumple’s investigation. “I think a number of the issues that were raised were followed up by another investigation, and EPA has already made significant adjustments to address those concerns.”

Since Rumple wrote the memo, the EPA has begun performing toxicity studies for a Libby-amphibole asbestos risk assessment and has stopped circulating misleading documents about the safety of living with and handling asbestos. 

In addition, Ketellapper said that he has been working as team leader to “foster a better working relationship internally” and that “the site team seems to be functioning better than it did at that time.”

Though the risk assessment for Libby-amphibole asbestos is finally under way, Dr. Gerry Henningsen, Libby’s former technical adviser, said he can’t help but wonder how much further the EPA would be in the process if it had begun testing sooner. According to Henningsen, who was a senior toxicologist working toward Libby’s risk assessment, the EPA had a toxicity study designed, peer-reviewed and funded in 2001.

“They just wouldn’t follow up,” Henningsen said. “It just sat on the RPM’s (remedial project manager) desk for years with no technical work being done. That’s a lot of what Cory (Rumple) found.”

When Henningsen became Libby’s technical adviser in 2005, he laid out a summary roadmap of studies for a risk assessment, but according to him, they were again ignored.

“If people had seen all the comments in Cory’s (Rumple) letter, some of those studies would have been done better and sooner,” Henningsen said, and if the studies had begun in 2006, “a good deal of the work would be done by now.”

Though it’s three years old now, the Rumple Report still has value, according to Black.

“It supports the community stance on what we think needs to happen,” Black said, which is “not to accept any ROD (Record of Decision) on any of the operating units until we are fully knowledgeable of the hazardous effects of Libby asbestos.”

The EPA has collected activity-based sampling and ambient air sampling, has looked at human health exposure data, and is performing studies on animals and cell cultures, according to Ketellapper. Those tests will pave the road to a risk assessment, he said.

“We are currently doing a complete set of toxicological studies,” Ketellapper said. “I hope to do a preliminary assessment this year to… make sure we’re addressing all the data gaps.”

Black criticizes the EPA for not looking at childhood exposure data, though Ketellapper says that if the data is available, it will eventually be included as part of the evaluation of the toxicity of Libby-amphibole asbestos.

Black pointed out that it will take pressure from the community to get the EPA to perform an acceptable risk assessment and safe cleanup.  

“There are lots of steps that we need to continue to pressure the EPA to keep taking,” Black said. “It will take an ongoing dialogue with the EPA. We need to stay together as a community and stay focused.”