A report released last week by staff of the Senate  Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee on EPA’s handling of the massive asbestos contamination in the mining town of Libby, Montana is laden with words including “failure,” “misled,” “interference,” and “delay.”  Refering to “EPA’s Failure to Declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby, Montana,” Senator Baucus said that he and the staff examined more than 14,000 internal documents and found:

“…a pattern of intervention from OMB, the White House, and political appointees at EPA that undermined cleanup efforts at Libby, delayed necessary toxicity studies, prevented a Public Health Emergency declaration, and ultimately left the people of Libby—people like my friend Les Skramstad—exposed to dangerous amphibole asbestos with no long term medical care.”

In his opening statement at the hearing, Senator Baucus said:

“EPA and OMB have played fast and loose with the facts and the law. They have put saving money over saving lives. They have failed the people of Libby.”

This familiar tale of industrial contamination, corporate malfeasance, disability and death, and government failure was brought to our attention originally by investigative journalist Andrew Schneider.  In the summer of 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was engaged in a year-long  examination of the 1872 General Mining Act. [Yawn]   As Schneider explains in his book An Air the Kills (Putnam, 2004), he had just finished some interviews in Harlem, MT with leaders of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, who told the reporters how mining companies screwed them and their water supply.

“…we were down the street, grabbing a burger at the only cafe in town.  Schneider’s cell phone, which hadn’t rung in a week, began chirping.  It was McClure [a Post-Intelligencer environmental reporter.]  He’d finished his interviews with the environmental group but said he got a wierd tip about some town called Libby that might be having health problems because of a now-closed vermiculite mine.   …’Vermiculite has nothing to do with hard-rock mining, but I thought you should know about it before you head home.’”

“…the Post-Intelligencer’s project editor, was called and accepted the detour to Libby with about as much enthusiasm as any editor would show when a reporter–senior or otherwise–says, ‘I’m just going to take a look at something that has nothing to do with what you think I should be doing.’”

What started as a reporter’s curiosity and road trip to Libby in 1999, continues to unfold as public health disaster.  A mortality analysis by ATSDR found that death from asbestosis was 60 times higher for Libby, MT residents than for the rest of the U.S., and they had 20-30% higher rates of lung cancer.

The report released last month by the Senate EPW Committee examined specifically EPA’s decision not to declare a public health emergency in Libby, MT, as part of the Superfund clean-up activities underway in the town.  The EPA’s Inspector General explained in testimony before the Committee that the controversy started in November 2001when

“EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) believed that this [zonolite] insulation had to be removed from homes in Libby because it could re-contaminate the area if left in attics and walls and somehow became airborne.  However, CERCLA Section 104 specifically prohibits the use of Superfund money to clean-up ‘products’ that are part of the structure of residential buildings unless a public health emergency is declared.” 

The Senate Commitee’s report “EPA’s Failure to Declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby, Montana,” provides excruciating detail of the efforts by EPA scientists and attorneys in Region 8 to make the case for declaring a public health emergency in Libby.  It notes:

“Attorneys in EPA Headquarters supported Region 8′s legal authority to remove Zonolite Attic Insulation by declaring a public health emergency.  …Headquarters proceeded with preparation for the declaration of a public health emergency.  Emails indicate [Marianne] Horinko [Asst. Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emerg. Response (OSWER)] requested to brief Administrator [Christine Todd] Whitman in early March.  On Feb 26, 2002, Horinko told Greavatt to ‘work with Joe Martyak on a press statement for Libby.’  She stated ‘I’d like to frame it as, we are declaring a [public health emergency] due to the gross, long term exposures for Libby residents, and thus we are taking aggressive action (including select removal of insulation.)’ 

“It appears EPA staff briefed Administrator Whitman on March 19, 2002.  On April 9, 2002, Bonnie Piper, spokeswoman with EPA Headquarters Press Office, emailed staff, including Jessica Furey, special counsel for the Administrator, noting, ‘I believe CTW [Administrator Whitman] wants this PHE [public health emergency] announced within 10 days.’” (pp. 19-21)

But then, things changed.  Senate EPW’s report goes on:

“…on April 9, 2002, there was an abrupt reversal of EPA’s decision to declare a public health emergency.  …Emails indicate a high-level meeting was set up between EPA officials and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)…” (p.23)  

An EPA official who participate in the meeting at OMB said:

“‘There was a lot of discussion if this had been done before, there was concern about sort of the slippery slope, if you do it in this case why this situation and where do you draw the line for other situations. And will that create public hysteria.’” (p.24)

The Committee’s report explains the machinations that EPA went through next.  In the end, senior EPA officials decided not to declare a public health emergency, and the Committee’s report outlines the consequences for Libby residents because of that decision.  These include:

  • Deprival of full medical care for the Libby community (under CERCLA, ATSDR would provide it)
  • Delay of needed toxicological studies
  • Misleading communications made to Libby residents

Moreover, the Committee exposes the federal government’s complete failure in addressing the problem of Zonolite Attic Insulation which was installed in millions of homes across the country.  The report notes:

“…it appears that EPA has yet to accomplish the most crucial task of working with OSHA to update the asbestos-in-buildings guidance documents for managing asbestos in buildings and facilities.  OSHA guidance currently does not specifically address the very friable and easily disturbed Zonoite Attic Insulation, and a review of OSHA’s publications indicates that their guidance has not been updated since 1990.” 

“The failure to update the OSHA guidancce document is potentially a very serious problem for contractors who work in attics, since as Dr. Aubrey Miller explained, ‘exposure levels are humongous in the attics; you cannot be there for 30 minutes even with respiratory protection and many are going there without any protection at all.’”

If you want to see a photo of Zonolite Attic Insulation and recommendations on what to do if you have it in your home, go here and here.

 

 

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