Last week, Montana senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester put pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to proceed with proposed asbestos safety regulations that will help clean up Libby, Montana. Once the site of the W.R. Grace vermiculite and asbestos mines, Libby is the epicenter of mesothelioma in the United States—hundreds of Libby residents have died from mesothelioma and other diseases after asbestos exposure, and many more are currently struggling with asbestos diseases.
According to the senators, delays in a risk study have frustrated Libby residents who are eager to clean up the air, land, and water of their community. The senators, both Democrats, have pointed fingers at W.R. Grace, claiming the chemical giant is trying to muddy the waters on this issue. According to The Associated Press, only a month ago Grace pushed for a delay in the study.
For decades, W.R. Grace mined vermiculite, a substance rich in asbestos, in and around Libby, filling the air with toxic fibers that can lead to mesothelioma and other deadly diseases. The standard proposed by the EPA is based on the premise that even small amounts of asbestos can lead to lung disease and damage. This new standard would be roughly 5,000 times more stringent than the standard used in other cleanups that focused on airborne asbestos. Grace has objected to this proposal.
In a letter to the EPA published last Thursday, Bacus and Tester appealed to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, stating firmly that it is time for the risk study to move ahead. The senators heavily criticized Grace for trying to prevent the EPA proposal, saying that the company had “traded profits for lives” in Libby.
The senators wrote, “We are not surprise to find Grace trying to cloud the science or hide behind the speculative liability of other property owners. Whatever the state of cleanups at Libby and other contaminated sites around the country, we must face the reality of how toxic Libby (asbestos) really is.”
Since 1999, the continued Superfund cleanup of Libby, which is expected to last for several more years, has cost upwards of $447 million. Libby is a tiny town of roughly 3,000 people, located just south of the Canadian border
Greg Euston, W.R. Grace spokesman, stated on Thursday that the company had no comment in reference to the senators’ letter. In public testimony and EPA documentation, the company has stated that lung problems associated with asbestos exposure could easily be confused with other issues like obesity. According to Grace, the EPA used flawed science to craft its proposal: Grace has asked for more research to be conducted.
Grace is not the only party to question the EPA proposal. A number of manufacturing and trade groups, plus federal agencies including the White House Office of Management and Budget, have claimed that the low threshold of asbestos pushed for by the EPA falls well below even background asbestos levels found naturally in other parts of the country.
The EPA will make a final decision on the Libby asbestos standard within the next year.