Posted by: Lawyer Sanders | September 26, 2008

Lawyer Sanders says U.S. Senate committee looking into White House interference with EPA over public heath crisis at Libby Montana.

In yet another shameful episode occurring at US EPA, a Senate committeee is holding a hearing to determine why EPA officials refused to declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby, Mont., in 2002. The town is home to the now-closed W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.  Vermiculite is a mineral that contains highly toxic tremolite asbestos fibers. 

This form of asbestos was released into the town’s air and was also carried home on miners’ clothing.  As a result of decades of mining activities, the entire town is contaminated with toxic asbestos fibers. Lawyers for Libby residents say asbestos has sickened about 2,000 people in the town and killed up to 225.


Documents obtained from EPA by the Senate committee show that EPA prepared a public health emergency declaration in 2002.  A public health declaration under Superfund law would have required a more intensive cleanup of asbestos and forced WR Grace to pay for asbestos and medical care for those who were infected.  However, the public health declaration needed an approval by higher level officials at EPA. 


Like many other shameful events occurring at EPA during the Bush Administration, EPA changed direction on the declaration after high level agency officials met with the OMB officials at the White House in April 2002.  A few weeks later, EPA released an “action memo” expanding the agency’s current authority to allow the cleanup insulation from Libby attics. But EPA did not declare a public health emergency.

If EPA had declared a public health emergency declaration, EPA would have required additional cleanup of the asbestos, along with public health screenings and long term medical health care for Libby residents with asbestos related disease.   Many believe this decision needlessly caused more people to die and others to suffer from asbestosis by a delay in treatment and screening. 


There is no doubt that the asbestos has created huge health problems in Libby.  The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that people in Libby suffer from asbestos-related health problems 40 to 60 times the national average, and that they suffer from mesothelioma, a dangerous form of cancer caused from asbestos exposure, 100 times the national average.


In 2008, W.R. Grace agreed to pay $250,000,000, the highest sum in the history of the Superfund program, to reimburse the federal government for the costs of the investigation and cleanup of asbestos contamination in Libby.  In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and EPA announced the Libby Amphibole Health Risk Initiative, a five year series of projects totaling $8 million designed to understand the health effects of exposure to lower levels of asbestos in Libby. 

I am betting that career employees at EPA testifying at the committee hearing will sign like canaries, as the final days of the Bush Administration wind down. 


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