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CAG's future in Libby appears unclear

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| November 9, 2009 11:00 PM

The Community Advisory Group, which has discussed Superfund-related issues at monthly meetings and operated as an Environmental Protection Agency watchdog for the past nine years, hasn’t convened since August and doesn’t have immediate plans for its next meeting.

Some members have given up on the entity and others are in favor of continuing as long as there is enough community interest – but support appears to be in short supply, according to e-mail correspondence between members.

“Based on the lack of e-mail traffic,” said member Bill Patten, “it sure doesn’t seem like it’s a good future.”

Patten, chief executive officer for St. John’s Lutheran Hospital, said he’s in favor of continuing monthly meetings, especially as the EPA moves forward on Records of Decision.

However, he admits that like other members, he doesn’t have time to take the lead.

“For me, personally, I will continue to be involved if others saw the value,” Patten said, “but I don’t have the time or the energy to be the flag bearer.”

September’s meeting was canceled after only Mike Giesey, board president of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, and temporary facilitator Virginia Tribe showed up. Some members had excused themselves in advance, so an optimistic Giesey supposed it was just bad timing. He has not, however, heard many replies in his attempts to re-schedule.

“We have some soul-searching to do and I've expressed my thoughts,” Giesey e-mailed members on Oct. 2. “… Next meeting will be time to decide how to continue with CAG, and maybe even if CAG should continue. It’s up to all of us.”

Members D.C. Orr and Gordon Sullivan blame the actions of the EPA for CAG falling apart, and said they will not attend future meetings. Orr accuses the EPA of systematically attempting to destroy the group so that there will be no community voice to question the agency’s decisions.

“Dissention was caused by the EPA,” said Orr, a Libby councilmember, “and I just don’t think you’ll ever bring them back together.”

The EPA announced in February that it would no longer attend CAG meetings after its relationship with the group soured to a point where community involvement coordinator Ted Linnert and CAG members could no longer hold a civil discussion.

The move disenchanted its members, leading Sullivan and longtime facilitator Gerald Mueller to resign.

The EPA agreed in July to hire Tribe, a professional facilitator out of Missoula, to lead a three-meeting series to reorganize the CAG into a more disciplined and efficient group that would attract higher public involvement and have civil discourse with EPA officials.

“It wasn’t EPA’s intention to destroy the CAG,” said Victor Ketellapper, Libby team leader, “rather to see it function better. We put a lot of resources in helping reorganize the CAG. We hired a facilitator that people thought was really capable.”

The first two meetings, in July and August, appeared to be positive steps forward, according to attendees, but the third meeting has yet to materialize.

The City of Libby joined the Lincoln County Health Board this summer to present a more unified voice to the EPA concerning asbestos-related health needs and cleanup, as well as a way to oversee resources obtained through public health emergency status.

There has been talk that the newly formed City-County Health Board could replace the CAG, but some are doubtful. Sullivan pointed out that property owners are not represented on the board, and Orr indicated that meetings aren’t at a convenient time for the general public.

“The City-County Health Board touts the voice of the people and then holds meetings at 2 p.m. on a weekday,” Orr said. “They formed that because it’s politically advantageous … but they are not listening to the concerns of the community, in my opinion.”

Patten believes that the City-County Health Board’s objective may differ from that of CAG.

“If I had to guess, I think people are going to wait and see how the City-County Health Board plays out as the venue for people to express their opinions,” Patten said. “… My guess is that its focus will be different – the oversight of some resources.”

The CAG has won some battles against the EPA over the years, said Orr, such as getting the agency to release internal information, to conduct toxicity studies and to declare a public health emergency.  

“The CAG, in its heydays, was a valuable asset,” said Orr. “… We had to get our congressmen involved on issues that the EPA should have brought to the table.”

The community will lose something important, some members believe, if CAG disbands.

“If issues like the RODs, if those discussions are finalized and there isn’t a venue like the CAG, I do think it will be a loss,” Patten said.

Orr said he would continue fighting for a clean Libby, but not through what he sees as an ineffective CAG.

“I don’t see any reason to expend the energy toward CAG because it’s too late,” Orr said. “The EPA is moving toward a Record of Decision and CAG has no voice.”