From: Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press
Published December 6, 2006 12:00 AM

EPA Cannot Verify Asbestos Cleanup

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency cannot verify the effectiveness of its cleanup programs in a Montana town where residents have contracted asbestos-related illnesses in unusually large numbers, the agency's inspector general said Tuesday.

The agency needs to do more testing to be certain its cleanup reduces the risk that residents may become ill _ or, if already ill, become sicker, the inspector general's office wrote in a report released by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Libby is home to the now-closed W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine. The vermiculite, used in a variety of household products, contained tremolite asbestos, which was released into the air, carried home on miners' clothing and even used in material spread on a high school running surface. It is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight residents.

The EPA, which has declared the area a Superfund site, first arrived in Libby in November 1999, when news reports linked asbestos contamination from the mine to the deaths and illnesses.

The investigators' conclusions could mean that hundreds of Libby homes already cleaned by the EPA would need to be re-evaluated for safety. The agency did not respond to requests Tuesday for comment on the report.

Investigators said the EPA should complete a toxicity assessment recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2003. That test would collect data to determine ways in which exposure can occur and the potential of the contaminants to harm people. It would also calculate the risk to those exposed.

According to the report, EPA officials said the test was denied internally because the agency did not approve the budget request and they believed they could obtain the necessary information through other studies they are conducting.

Baucus said he will work to make sure EPA has funding for the study.

"It's an outrage," Baucus said. "Mothers and fathers believed that the EPA was making Libby safe for their children, and their children's children. The EPA's work in Libby is morally and ethically reprehensible _ it has the potential to bring further harm to community that has already suffered too much."

The report asks top agency officials for a response within 30 days.

Source: Associated Press

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