Libby Superfund oversight committee meets as asbestos mitigation reaches new phase

Posted at 7:53 AM, Mar 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-27 09:54:55-04

HELENA – A committee of state and local stakeholders heard updates Tuesday as the ongoing work at the Libby Superfund site enters a new phase.

The Libby Asbestos Superfund Oversight Committee – formerly known as the Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team – met in Helena for its quarterly meeting.

This was the committee’s first meeting after Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby).

The bill changed the group’s name and laid out its role in monitoring activities at the Superfund site and assisting with the final cleanup and long-term maintenance plans.

Libby has been a Superfund site for about two decades, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worked to address extensive asbestos contamination from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.

The agency announced in November that it had completed cleanup work on residential and commercial properties in Libby. By April, they plan to move into the “operational and functional” phase, where they will ensure the existing remedies are working correctly.

“We test the institutional controls and things that have been put into place for the long-term management of the site,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck who serves as the presiding officer of the oversight committee.

Libby Asbestos Cleanup
It was 20 years ago that Libby got news of one the worst environmental bombshells in Northwest history. (MTN News photo)

Within in one year after that phase begins, the EPA is set to hand over primary responsibility for the site to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The agency would continue to check back on the site every five years.

Peck said there’s a lot of work still to be done as these changes take effect, “it’s a very complex process, especially the transition process of closing out the Superfund site.”

Committee members discussed some of those issues during the Tuesday meeting. For example, in many cases, the EPA secured asbestos inside buildings by sealing it off but leaving it in place.

“When you leave the legacy material behind in a home, one of three things is going to happen to that home: it’s going to burn, get dilapidated and fall, or it’s going to be remodeled,” Peck said. “Any one of those things will cause another exposure.”

The committee sought to clarify that the program will cover any remediation costs if a home renovation exposes that asbestos — and that homeowners won’t be held liable.

Peck said he’s proud of the cooperation between the EPA, the state, local leaders and the Libby community.

“After 19 or 20 years, yeah, we’re glad to be here, but it’s just a lot of work and negotiation,” he said. “I think we’ve established really good relationships so that we’re very open with one another in discussing issues and we work through them.”

Gunderson, who also serves on the committee, said he hopes the lessons learned from this process can be applied to other Montana communities dealing with Superfund cleanups.

“We’re running into a unique experience, and we’re documenting it, we’re forming it, we’re writing the book,” he said. “And it’s going to be used not only in Libby, but it’s going to be used all over the state.”

-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News