LIBBY, Mont. -- For more than 65 years, lethal asbestos fibers from a nearby vermiculite mine contaminated this small town and its people.
Federal agencies have spent seven years and tens of millions of dollars removing tons of the cancer-causing material from homes, businesses, schools and playgrounds. Yet no one is sure that any amount of time or money can clean up the town enough to make it safe to live there.
So a growing number of residents now are proposing that the federal Environmental Protection Agency or Columbia-based W.R. Grace & Co., which owned the mine for the last quarter-century of its operation, buy their houses so they can rebuild outside heavily contaminated areas.
Government scientists met last week to try to develop studies to determine how risky living in Libby really is.
"The risk assessment must be completed prior to any decisions regarding the final cleanup plan," EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said.
Talk of a buyout took hold after the EPA's inspector general said in a report last month that, because the agency has not determined the safe level of human exposure to the asbestos in Grace's vermiculite, the "EPA cannot be sure that the ongoing Libby cleanup is sufficient to prevent humans from contracting asbestos-related diseases."
The IG report also said the EPA must "fund and execute a comprehensive study to determine the effectiveness of the Libby cleanup" with special attention on the effects of asbestos exposure on children.
Paul Peronard, the EPA emergency coordinator who has been involved in the cleanup since the beginning in 1999, said, "The EPA has no plans for a mass relocation or buyout, although the concept is not off the table. Right now the judgment is the community would be better served by fixing the problem in place."
However, he added, "There is a possibility that our analytical methods are not sensitive enough to measure down low enough to say there is no risk, and with this type of asbestos we cannot say that we ultimately will know what level will be deemed acceptable."
Grace has taken the idea of a buyout seriously enough to study the costs and benefits, according to two lawyers involved in the company's bankruptcy case. Grace filed for bankruptcy in 2001 to protect itself from thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits.
Grace spokesman Greg Euston said Wednesday that "Grace doesn't feel at liberty to discuss these issues," noting the bankruptcy judge's advice to parties in the case not to talk about issues surrounding Libby. No documents filed in Grace's bankruptcy case address the potential of a buyout.
About $68 million has already been spent on cleaning 800 homes in Libby; 970 homes remain to be cleaned. Millions more were spent to clean up the area around the mine and elsewhere. In Troy, 10 miles west of Libby, another 300 homes with insulation made from Libby vermiculite may be cleaned, but examination of those homes will continue in the spring.
Through 2005, a total of $164.4 million had been spent on cleaning up Libby-related contamination in Montana and elsewhere, according to documents Grace filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. As of Sept. 30, Grace estimated its total liability at $255.7 million, not counting costs of cleaning up the mine itself -- with the bill continuing to climb. Last year, an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that Grace is responsible for paying cleanup costs for Libby; Grace's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.
Grace and seven current or former executives have been indicted on federal criminal charges that they knowingly endangered the public and Libby mine workers through exposure to asbestos and concealed the information. The trial has been pushed back until next year. The company has denied wrongdoing.
The documented death count from asbestos-related diseases among vermiculite miners, their families and those who just lived in Libby is over 400. No one knows how many more people may have been exposed at the hundreds of locations throughout North America that received asbestos-contaminated ore from the Montana mine and processed it into Zonolite attic and wall insulation and other building products.
Exposure to asbestos fibers is associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, a disorder that restricts the ability to breathe. It can take 20 years or more for symptoms of these illnesses to surface.
Scientists say the tremolite and other fibers from Libby's contaminated vermiculite may be 100 to 1,000 times more potent than the far more common chrysotile asbestos for which almost all government exposure and health standards are written.
"EPA says it has cleaned 800 or so homes and businesses but many are still extremely dangerous. With the highly toxic asbestos from the Grace mine, no one knows how clean is clean," said Gerry Henningsen, a former EPA toxicologist now working as the technical adviser to Libby.
"No one can assure these people that their house is safe and not a risk to them or their children. We know there is enough [asbestos] remaining after the cleanup that people can continue getting lung disease and dying."
Although hundreds of truckloads of contaminated soil, insulation and carpeting have been hauled to a toxic landfill, even government scientists are not sure that the risk is gone.
"EPA dropped the ball in Libby and its citizens remain at risk because of it," said Henningsen. "There is no way that I would live in those houses if I had children."
"I'm amazed that Grace hasn't just bought out these homes. They would save millions in the end compared to what EPA's contractors charge," said Gayla Benefield, one of the two activists who have been fighting for years to get the town clean. Benefield has dozens of family members who have died or are seriously ill with asbestos-related diseases.
The EPA has a history of buying out homes and businesses on contaminated land. The agency has done so 26 times in states from coast to coast. This includes buying the entire town of Times Beach, Mo., in 1982 and permanently relocating 2,000 people because of indications that their 700 homes and businesses were contaminated with dioxin. Last year, the EPA bought out four houses in western Pennsylvania because of arsenic contamination.
Benefield, Henningsen and the leaders of the EPA team that has been working to assess and clean Libby met last week with the EPA's Science Advisory Board at Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Many people in Libby have no desire to leave, some having lived on the same land for generations. Many of those who were apprehensive calmed considerably when the EPA sent Peronard back to Montana this fall to run the cleanup again.
"Paul was here from the beginning and everyone knows that he and his team have fought everyone from EPA headquarters to the White House to get this town cleaned properly. People are willing to wait and see what he says before they try to leave," Benefield said. "If it's too dangerous to live here, he'll tell everyone."