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HELENA — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman will not come to Montana this summer to inspect environmental damage in Libby and northeastern Montana’s Zortman and Landusky mines, but the Martz administration is hoping she’ll make the trip this fall.

Gov. Judy Martz asked Whitman early this year to come to Libby, where asbestos exposure from the former W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine has been linked to dozens of deaths and cases of illness. Martz also wants Whitman to see the Zortman and Landusky mines, where the state is having trouble affording a comprehensive cleanup. Martz told the EPA chief that the state needs federal assistance for the Zortman project.

In a letter to Martz earlier this month, Whitman said scheduling commitments won’t allow her to accept Martz’s invitation “in the coming few months.” Whitman said she still wants to see the affected areas and will try to make it to Montana later.

“I look forward to accompanying you to the sites in question and continuing our discussion regarding the progress already made there as well as the issues still awaiting resolution,” Whitman wrote. “Until then, I will continue to monitor EPA’s ongoing involvement in helping to address these issues.”

“We will keep trying!” added a handwritten note on the bottom of the letter.

Shane Hedges, the governor’s chief policy adviser, said the administration still is hoping to get Whitman to Montana as soon as September.

In November of 1999, the EPA began a large-scale emergency cleanup in Libby, following published reports linked the town’s vermiculite mine to nearly 200 deaths. Since then, federal agencies have conducted self-audits and reported that health regulators at both state and federal levels knew of asbestos dangers in Libby and didn’t act aggressively enough to protect mine workers and residents.

Now, the EPA is putting together a proposal to list Libby and surrounding mine sites on its Superfund priority cleanup list. While Whitman won’t be in Libby this summer to assess the problems firsthand, two key EPA officials will meet with residents later this month.

Steve Luftig, who heads the EPA’s Superfund program, will be part of a community meeting in Libby on July 12, along with EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley and Susan Hazen, head of the agency’s Toxic Substances Program, according to the federal agency.

Martz, a Republican elected last fall, has not been to Libby since she took office. Her staff has said she prefers to make the trip with Whitman and other officials. Given the way that Superfund designation works, Martz will have near final say over whether Libby and surrounding areas are cleaned up under the program.

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