LIBBY – Libby is finally ready to move into a future no longer marred by the threat of asbestos-related disease after two decades of uncertainty. While state and local officials will always have to keep contamination in mind, the widespread cleanup is winding down.
It was just short of 20 years ago that Libby got news of one the worst environmental bombshells in Northwest history — widespread asbestos contamination from years of vermiculite extraction at the WR Grace Mine.
Instead of hundreds of jobs, hundreds of deaths would result from the crisis. Libby and Troy would be turned upside down as the Environmental Protection Agency tackled the “Superfund” cleanup. But now that seemingly endless chore is ending.
While there’s still a handful of properties like this one slated for cleanup through September and October, this fall marks the end of 18 years of effort to clean up asbestos contamination in Lincoln County.’
“We’re actually down to the last 31 properties that we’ve identified that need a cleanup that will let us do that. Of all those properties we have about 30 that have said ‘no, you can’t come on my property’ for whatever reasons. But we are actually finishing up this year,” said EPA Libby Remedial Project Manager Mike Cirian said.
The end of the active cleanup operations is a success, but one mixed with an economic impact.
“It’s kind of one of those bittersweet memories you know. It’s really nice that we’re going to be finishing up and I know the community has been waiting for us to be done and out of here for a long time,” Cirian said.
“But also there’s going to be a lot of people that are losing their jobs. And in our world, we work ourselves out of a job. And when we do, we’ve done our job the way it’s supposed to be. But we can all set back and be proud of what we’ve done. We’ve made Libby a safer place to live,” he added.
Safer for people like Jack Myers. He’d just bought his house the year the contamination was exposed in 1999. At first, he didn’t favor cleanup and unlike some, he didn’t have to move — he actually bought donuts for the cleanup crew.
“To me, it was a baffling but an interesting process you know,” Myers said. “It was a very professionally done job. And, like I said, with an engineering background I could recognize good work. And it was good work…you have to have a clean bill of health if you think about future sales.”
There are 230 where owners opted out of the EPA cleanup for a variety of reasons.
“And what we’ve seen in the last few years is less than 5-percent of those properties even go to a cleanup anyways,” Cirian said. “So out of the 230, the most you’d have is four or five properties. So that’s probably the good news of it.”
Over the next year, EPA will transition future cleanup responsibilities to the State of Montana, and Lincoln County. Attention will turn to the 10,000 acre mine site itself, OU-3, which was already capped.
“We’re actually getting into that feasibility, where we take all the information we’ve gathered over the years. The different activity-based sampling. The different test plots and the different activities and sampling that we’ve done up there,” Cirian explained. “And use those to come up with what will be a combination of different things. Or, one final remedy that will work for OU-3.”
But for now, a celebration of sorts is cueing up in Libby. Cirian points with pride at places like the park which used to be a heavily contaminated industrial site, and now hosts family reunions, the blues festival and picnics.
“So it’s really been one of those really good success stories for Libby. And something that I think people will hopefully look at this and not even think about asbestos anymore,” Cirian said.
Cirian says EPA has also learned some valuable lessons about working with people and communities doing the Libby cleanup, lessons which will help other communities in the future.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News