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HELENA – Amid increasing criticism over her absence on the state’s most pressing environmental problem, Gov. Judy Martz has set aside a day for Libby early next month to discuss asbestos cleanup options with the community.

Martz will travel to Libby on Aug. 8 and spend the day meeting with residents to gather ideas about how to handle the cleanup of the town’s toxic asbestos, an aide said Tuesday. Martz has also set up a telephone meeting with the Lincoln County commissioners before her trip.

“Emotions are running high in Libby right now and the reason for the governor’s visit is to try to calm some of these emotions,” said Shane Hedges, spokesman for the governor.

Hedges said the governor wants to work on healing divisions among Libby residents over the possible Superfund designation.

While Martz has not spoken with Libby’s elected officials or met with residents, she did sit down in late May with top officials from W.R. Grace and Co. Grace is the company that owned Libby’s now defunct vermiculite mine, which has been linked to nearly 200 deaths and dozens of asbestos-related cases of illness. Already this month, both local newspapers in Libby have carried editorials demanding that Martz show up and listen to the townspeople.

“Martz has said she wants input from the community, but you have to wonder which part of the community,” said a recent editorial in the Western News, one of Libby’s two newspapers.

In a commentary in the Montanian, editor David Latham wrote, “Martz has not come to Libby since she took office in January and she knows nearly nothing about the asbestos situation except for what W.R. Grace has told her. I hope she can learn enough about it vicariously to make an informed, impartial decision.”

Other residents have been even more blunt. Late last week, Don Wilkins, a member of the EPA’s community advisory group for Libby, sent the governor a Montana road map showing the route from Helena to Libby.

Along with the map, Wilkins sent the governor a short note: “Apparently, following the recent instructions you received from W.R. Grace officials, they forgot to give the self-described industry lapdog traveling instructions to Libby. I have enclosed them for you.”

Wilkins’ note made reference to a touchy subject for Martz, who said shortly after taking office that she was not ashamed of being labeled a “lapdog” for industry.

Hedges said the governor’s decision to clear her schedule in early August and head to Libby had nothing to do with criticism from the community. Instead, he said, Martz had planned to go to Libby with EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, who has indefinitely postponed a trip to Montana.

Hedges said the governor’s schedule has been packed with important events and this is her first chance to break away and travel to Libby.

“The governor’s schedule is very demanding,” said Hedges. “While it’s important for her to be in Libby, we also have 149,000 square miles for her to cover.”

Martz wants to put together a “listening session” with Libby residents “to see what progress has been made and what progress hasn’t been made.”

A week before her trip to Libby, Martz plans a conference call with Lincoln County’s three commissioners. Republican Rita Windom, a commission member, said it’s crucial the governor meet with local elected officials before making any decision on Libby’s potential Superfund designation.

“We want to make sure that things are not done in a hasty manner, either for or against,” Windom said.