WASHINGTON, DC, June 17, 2009 (ENS) - The first public health emergency ever declared by the U.S. EPA exists at the Libby asbestos site in northwest Montana, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today. Vermiculite contaminated with asbestos was mined in Libby until 1990. Hundreds of asbestos-related disease cases have been documented in this small community, which covers the towns of Libby and Troy.
The announcement was made today at a joint press conference with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana.
This determination recognizes the serious impact to public health from the contamination at Libby and underscores the need for further action and health care for area residents who have been or may be exposed to asbestos.
"This is a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long. We're making a long-delayed commitment to the people of Libby and Troy. Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation on the ground, we will continue to move aggressively on the cleanup efforts and protect the health of the people," said Jackson. "We're here to help create a long and prosperous future for this town."
But many Libby and Troy residents are sick. Investigators from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found the incidences of asbestosis, a lung condition, in the Libby area "staggeringly higher" than the national average for the period from 1979-1998, Jackson said.
EPA is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, which is making available a short-term grant to provide needed asbestos-related medical care to Libby and Troy residents.
The amount of the grant has not yet been determined. Local officials are currently putting together a grant proposal that will lay out options for provision of medical care that will work for the residents of Lincoln County. HHS anticipates that this grant can be awarded in August 2009.
"Today's announcement reflects our administration's concern for the residents of Lincoln County and our intention to act decisively to protect and improve their health and quality of life,' said Secretary Sebelius.
"This is a great day for Libby," said Senator Baucus, who has long sought determination of a public health emergency here.
"This is a town that was poisoned by W.R. Grace, then had to wait year after year as the last administration failed to determine that public health emergency exists. But today is a new day."
Senator Baucus pledged to continue to push until Libby has "a clean bill of health."
Senator Tester said, "This is a long-overdue, common sense decision that will go a long way for Libby and the thousands of folks who were poisoned there. This decision will help make quality health care more accessible and it will open the door to get new resources on the ground."
Gold miners discovered vermiculite in Libby in 1881. In the 1920s, the Zonolite Company formed and began mining the vermiculite. In 1963, W.R. Grace bought the Zonolite mining operations and extracted vermiculite for use in building insulation and as a soil conditioner.
But vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with a toxic form of naturally-occurring asbestos called tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers.
The mine closed in 1990. While in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80 percent of the world's supply of vermiculite. It is estimated that the Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the United States from 1919 to 1990.
The Libby asbestos site has been on the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List since 2002, and cleanup has taken place since 2000.
As of 2009, the EPA says, the former vermiculite processing plants and other highly contaminated public areas have been cleaned up, and cleanups have been completed at over 1,100 residential and commercial properties.
EPA expects to complete cleanups at least 100 larger properties during the 2009 construction season. Toxicological and epidemiological studies on Libby amphibole asbestos have begun in order to support the Baseline Risk Assessment for the site. Preliminary site assessment work has begun at the vermiculite mine itself.
The publicly traded W.R. Grace & Co. is a global supplier of catalysts to petroleum refiners; catalysts for the manufacture of plastics; silica-based engineered and specialty materials for industrial applications; sealants and coatings for food and beverage packaging, and specialty chemicals, additives and building materials for commercial and residential construction.
With annual sales of more than $3 billion, Grace has about 6,200 employees and operations in over 40 countries.
In Libby, Grace this year renewed its donation of $250,000 to St. John's Lutheran Hospital for the tenth consecutive year. The donations totaling about $2 million, have been used to establish a clinic for people with asbestos-related illnesses, train medical staff, purchase equipment and new devices for a state-of-the-art laboratory), treat patients and subsidize medical procedures.
"As the sole hospital in the area, we have had to continually increase our services to meet the needs of the community," said Bill Patten, St. John's CEO. He added, "We are thankful to Grace for its financial support over the past ten years."
In addition to the hospital donations, Grace funds a medical expense program for current and former residents of Libby who have asbestos-related conditions. Grace has spent more than $17 million on the Libby Medical Program, which has over 1,000 current enrollees.