Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on-scene coordinators Paul Peronard and Duc Nguyen oversee the asbestos clean-up and removal activities in Libby. They also consult with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to determine how tremolite asbestos has impacted the health of the area's residents and assess the risk of ongoing exposure. Ultimately, their work may change the federal regulatory levels for asbestos exposure.
A federal agency like the EPA is rarely welcomed in industry-friendly towns like Libby, but Peronard and Nguyen have garnered tremendous community support to do their work.
To date, $19 million has been spent for cleanup and assessment in Libby, and the agencies are asking for $14 million more just for this year. They've taken some 12,000 air and soil samples and removed thousands of cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated soil from the export and expansion plant sites. But their efforts to clean up the screening plant have been stalled by W. R. Grace. This delay is costing the agency time and money and leaves people at risk, says Peronard. He's never seen so many sick people in one place, he adds.
"The impact here is huge, off the scale in terms of epidemiological measures," says Peronard. "I haven't seen a site to really compare with this. There's more people sick around Libby than ever documented at Times Beach or Love Canal, that people could associate with chemical exposure."
Just how long this will take depends on several complex variables, not the least being a new administration in Washington, D.C., and whether it will continue to fund the effort.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," says Nguyen. Besides the daunting task of developing a risk assessment model, they also continue to battle with the company over the sites they've been working on. Nguyen says Grace has even asked the EPA to wave penalties and other company liabilities.
"They are trying to sugarcoat the problems here, so they don't look so bad. It's not something we can do," he says.
In addition to Libby, the EPA has expanded its investigations into 18 processing plants across the nation, where vermiculite ore was shipped, as well as to homes and gardens that contain Zonolite in Libby.