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EPA, County Commission discuss future of Superfund site

by Benjamin Kibbey Western News
| November 30, 2018 3:00 AM

As the Environmental Protection Agency winds down the operational phase of the Libby Superfund site, Regional Administrator Doug Benevento assured the Lincoln County Commission that future abatement will not come at a cost to home and business owners, during a meeting Thursday morning.

Commissioner Mark Peck met with Benevento, EPA Regional Administrator for Region 8, and Mike Cirian, the EPA’s site manager for Libby, on Thursday to go over the current standing and future plans for the Superfund site.

The meeting had originally been intended to include commissioners Jerry Bennett and Mike Cole as well, but was not placed on the commission’s calendar in time for a full meeting of the commission.

Later, during an awards ceremony recognizing the City of Libby and other agencies and organizations, Peck reiterated the significance of property owners not having to worry about future abatement costs.

With some of the asbestos containment taking place inside the walls of existing buildings, the future costs of disposal during renovations has been a major concern, Peck said.

“There was a lot of discussion over who was going to be responsible for paying for that material if it had to be removed during the remodel,” Peck said.

While the property owner would have to cover the cost of any renovation just as they would if no asbestos were present, they will not have to pay for the abatement of any asbestos, Benevento said.

This wasn’t just a financial concern, Peck said. The commission was also concerned about the public health impact.

Peck said that it was likely that if a property owner was faced with several thousands of dollars in costs for asbestos removal, they would instead simply remove it themselves and sneak it into the landfill.

That would just be undoing all the work that had been done.

Peck said he was also pleased with the EPA’s expressed support for keeping the public health emergency in place as the area transitions away from the Superfund designation.

After the ceremony, Benevento clarified that the EPA has no authority over the public health emergency, which is under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS would ultimately make any decisions about it.

However, he said that the EPA would be an advocate on the part of the community and work with other stakeholders to keep the designation in place into the future.

Benevento said that there is no discussion at this time of removing the public health emergency.

In addition to the Operation and Maintenance settlement accounts from the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Benevento said that the remaining funds from the W.R. Grace settlement not used in the abatement up to this point would be earmarked for uses such as future abatement locally.

Cirian said that there are still costs to be settled from the current phase of operations, and how much will be left from the settlement is uncertain. However, he said it should be somewhere between $5 million and $15 million.

“We’ll have to make sure everything’s accounted for before I can actually give you a lot closer number,” he told Lincoln County Board of Health member George Jamison.

Jamison said that he was most concerned about making sure that the intention to set the money aside for future use in the former Superfund site was set down on paper.

“At the least you’ll have a letter, but that’s the very least,” Cirian said.

Peck and Benevento expressed agreement throughout the meeting that it is important that all arrangements for future funding are set down in writing.

Peck also addressed that Senate Bill 315, which provides for $600,000 dollars annually in funding, will ultimately expire, and that future leaders may need to look at an effort to renew it.

“I think it’s really important when we go through the annual and the five years, that we’re really looking at the funding, and re-projecting and playing out so we get ahead of it,” he said.

The numbers

According to the EPA, they identified 8,112 properties in the Superfund site, of which 2,611 had removal completed and 4,978 did not require any removal.

In addition, at 220 sites where investigation was needed, the property owner refused access.

Cirian said that some of those included places where an owner had built on a previously vacant site, but it was still possible that there was contamination on the property.

The EPA identified an additional six sites where they believe removal of contamination is necessary, but the owner refused.

Cirian said that the refusal properties are filed with the county, and those records would be available to lending institutions in the future.

In the case future abatement is needed even at the refusal sites — such as after a change in ownership — funds would continue to be available for that abatement, he said.

The process for how future abatement would be conducted is still being developed, he said.

Jenny Chambers with DEQ said that she would expect future processes to adhere to the same level of cleanup that has occurred in the past.