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Property owners go it alone on asbestos abatement with ARP funding in flux

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 22, 2020 7:00 AM

While funding remains in flux for maintaining the Libby Superfund site, property owners are having to remove asbestos on their own or pay out of pocket for professionals.

Two residents are currently seeking contractors for asbestos abatements, according to Virginia Kocieda, director of the Asbestos Resource Program. To be eligible for reimbursement by state or federal dollars, Kocieda said the homeowners must solicit bids from three contractors.

A little more than two months ago, oversight of Operable Units 4 and 7 of the Superfund site were transferred from the EPA to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The units cover residential and commercial properties in Libby and Troy. As of yet, the two agencies have not finalized the cooperative agreement that would provide the DEQ with funds to manage these areas.

One of the properties has a refusal status meaning that the then-owner declined to have contractors with the EPA inspect the land during the agency’s cleanup of the Libby Superfund site. While the status renders the resident ineligible for federal reimbursement, Kocieda said that under certain conditions the property owner might receive a refund for the work through DEQ.

Kocieda noted that many of the residents with refusal statuses on their properties have come forward asking to have them removed by allowing inspections.

Regardless of their prospects for reimbursement, Kocieda said that the current lack of financial aid has put stress on residents.

“Not many property owners can afford abatement contractors out of pocket,” she said.

One resident has already self-performed asbestos clean-up on their property. ARP staff offered as much assistance as possible, Kocieda said, by providing the homeowner with bags for removing the asbestos and best management practices.

Even before the lack of funding became an issue, Lincoln County officials have criticized the state’s plans for paying for property clean-ups.

For example, the DEQ said in February it would not pay for sampling and cleanup if a developer wants to subdivide a 20-acre lot and sampling of the property finds asbestos contamination.

“This just blows me away,” County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) said during a March 4 meeting. “Who in their right mind is going to invest in Lincoln County under these conditions? It’s ludicrous. The economic cost to the county could be significant.”

The revenue stream for ARP, which is tasked with managing the situation locally, also dried up when the state assumed responsibility for the Libby and Troy portions of the site on July 1. The cooperative agreement between the EPA and the Lincoln County Health Department, which had funded the program for the past two years, lapsed.

Going forward, the ARP will depend on funds from the DEQ, but officials have not yet finalized the deal. The dollars the state agency is expected to allocate to the ARP will come from the still unfinished cooperative agreement between the DEQ and the EPA.

While Peck said he expects the agreement between the state and federal agencies to be finalized soon, the two-month delay has upset the funding timeline for the program.

“We should be working on next year’s agreement and we still haven’t even got this one signed,” Peck said.

In the meantime, Peck said the county will continue to support the ARP. He hopes the deal between the DEQ and EPA will reimburse county funds put into the program.

“I don’t know what’s holding it up,” he said. “It’s just not a good way to do business.”

The ARP was created in 2012 and charged with reducing exposure to asbestos in the Libby Superfund site. Program outreach has centered on keeping the public informed of the risks associated with asbestos contact and providing residents with best management practices and resources for reducing exposure.

With limited revenue, ARP officials have said they will focus on using every dollar in a meaningful way. The program will continue providing its essential services, which include answering their hotline to respond to questions about the Superfund site and conducting property evaluations for asbestos contamination, according to Virginia Kocieda.