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EPA delists operable unit covering roads between Libby and Troy

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 17, 2021 7:00 AM

The continued restoration of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site reached another milestone earlier this week when federal officials removed a portion of the project from its National Priorities List.

EPA officials announced the deletion of Operable Unit 8, which covers roadways between Libby and Troy, on Sept. 14. The unit includes U.S. Highway 2, state Highway 37 and county roads.

The announcement came after the EPA determined that no additional remediation action was required to protect human health and the environment in the area, according to an EPA press release. The federal agency completed the investigation and cleanup of the superfund site in 2018 except for the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine and nearby forested areas.

“This is the third operable unit deletion at the Libby Asbestos Superfund site in three years, a milestone that demonstrates the progress EPA and our partners have made in the cleanup and restoration of properties in Libby,” said Betsy Smidinger, director of EPA Region 8’s Superfund and Emergency Management Division, in a statement.

Federal officials deleted Operable Unit 1 in May 2020. This 17-acre unit delineated land primarily affected by the release of asbestos from the former export plant. The operable unit included the plant itself, the Riverfront Park area and embankments along state Highway 37.

The year prior, EPA officials announced the first unit deletion after completing cleanup efforts at Operable Unit 2. This unit included areas affected by contamination from the former screening plant. The unit covered the plant, the Flyway property, the state Highway 37 right-of-way next to the plant and privately owned properties near the plant and Rainy Creek Road.

In all, federal officials have divided the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site into eight operable units.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines applauded the deletion of Operable Unit 8 in a Sept. 14 statement, calling it another positive step in the cleanup process.

“I’m grateful for the work that the EPA and local partners have done over the years to create a safer, healthier community for the residents of Libby and Troy,” said Daines in the release.

Officials will continue conducting operation and maintenance activities at the three deleted operable units. This process includes regular reviews to ensure the EPA’s remedies remain functioning.

EPA is investigating possible treatment options for Operable Unit 3, which includes property in and around the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. Federal officials hope to complete a feasibility study this year. After soliciting public comment, EPA will determine a remedy for the site. The agency anticipates issuing a record of decision in 2024.

Last July, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality took over operations and maintenance work at Operable Unit 4 and Operable Unit 7, which cover residential, commercial, industrial and public properties in and around Libby and Troy. EPA investigated over 6,400 properties in Libby and 1,400 properties in Troy. As part of remediation efforts concluded in 2018, federal officials and partners oversaw the cleanup of more than 2,400 properties in Libby and 200 properties in Troy.

Officials approved a decree last November memorializing a commitment by railroad giant BNSF to manage Operable Unit 6. This unit includes property owned and operated by the company. EPA officials anticipate no additional cleanup efforts in the unit, but have required institutional controls to ensure remedies remain protective.

After beginning investigations and removal work to address asbestos in southern Lincoln County in 2000, EPA officials placed the site on its National Priorities List in October 2002. The agency declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby for the first time in its history in 2009 to provide federal health care assistance to victims of asbestos-related disease.