LIBBY — Ethan Fairbrother wants a more certain future for his 10-month-old son, Wyatt, than this town offers.
Fairbrother and his wife, Christina, are determined to raise their son in a place where they dont have to worry about the toxic dangers of airborne asbestos. Theyre hoping to move away from Libby soon, even if its only heading up the road 30 miles to Troy.
The Fairbrothers are Libby asbestos victims of a different kind. They are not sick or dying. Instead, they live in a rental house on the outskirts of Libby. In the yard sit several pieces of equipment from the old W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine. After inspecting the equipment parked in the Fairbrothers back yard, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Fairbrothers that their child shouldnt be allowed to play anywhere near the mess. The risk of exposure to asbestos from the dust — and the potential of deadly respiratory disease somewhere later — is too great, they said.
We didnt really expect to run into all of this, says Ethan Fairbrother, 23, speaking from his job at Lincoln Lanes, the local bowling alley.
Fairbrother is looking at job options outside Libby. If those dont pan out, he says, hell keep his job in Libby but move his family to Troy, where theres no question about their safety. Its simply been too difficult, he says, to watch friends and acquaintances hit hard by asbestos sicknesses. He doesnt want his own family to suffer the same problems.
Like the Fairbrothers, the town of Libby is facing some hard choices about its future. And the decisions made in the next few months seem likely to shape the town — and the lives of its residents — forever.Mining legacyIt has been nearly two years since the asbestos time bomb ticking in Libby exploded under a national spotlight. News reports in November 1999 detailed years of widespread death and illness in this small northwestern Montana town, linked to the dust of a local mine that produced vermiculite for insulation, potting soils and other products shipped around the country. Vermiculite, a shiny, micalike material that expands like popcorn when its heated, was primarily marketed across the country as Zonolite brand insulation.
Airborne fibers from vermiculites naturally occurring companion — tremolite asbestos — are being blamed for killing and sickening former miners, their families and other Libby residents.
News of the health crisis in Libby drew the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which dispatched an emergency cleanup crew to Libby at the end of 1999. That crew has since blown out its budget and overrun the agency s clock on such projects, typically limited to one year and $2 million worth of work. By the end of this year, the EPA expects to have spent $30 million in emergency action money in two years in Libby.
As the emotional shock has begun to wear off, Libby has hit a crossroads: State, local and federal officials must decide how to move forward.
Typically, when the EPA decides that an emergency action is complete but more work is needed, the Superfund program steps in and takes over for the long haul.
The nature of my business is that the Marines hit the beach. Once thats done, the regular Army comes in, said Paul Peronard, emergency response leader for the EPA s regional office in Denver and onsite coordinator in Libby.ControversyYet the prospect of listing Libby and the nearby former mining properties on the EPAs Superfund National Priorities List has generated heated controversy.
Libbys environmental problems are anything but typical. The widespread deaths and damage to the town over the years — along with the highly contentious relationship between many residents and the mining company responsible for pollution here — give this potential Superfund listing a whole new set of problems.
We have to get beyond blame somehow, said Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican who took office in January and will have great sway over whether Libby becomes part of the Superfund priorities list.
The governor said she would rely heavily on advice from local officials, such as the Lincoln County commissioners. But she is not sold on the notion that a Superfund cleanup is the prescription for what ails Libby.
Essentially, Martz and other officials have four options:
Listing Libby and the surrounding mine sites as Superfund sites, clearing the way for additional federal money to pay for the cleanup.
Letting W.R. Grace and Co., the company that ran the mine in Libby for decades, conduct and pay for the cleanup.
Getting a special congressional appropriation to pay for the cleanup.
Continuing funding the EPAs emergency cleanup.
Its generally agreed that the last two options arent particularly realistic, given that nobody has requested a special congressional appropriation and keeping the emergency crew in place would be highly unusual.
So most observers agree that the two choices facing Libby boil down to a Superfund designation or requiring Grace to clean up the contamination.
But other issues come into play as well: A long-sagging local economy weighs heavily against health hazards at every turn. The relationship between the EPA and W.R. Grace and Co. has deteriorated to the point where officials from either side haven t spoken in months. The relationship between the EPA and Libby residents has been testy at times, and some residents just dont have much trust to spare for the federal government. Other divisions in Libby seem to grow deeper with each passing week; some residents, in fact, still say that the health hazards have been overblown by federal officials and the media. Other residents have increasingly harsh and bitter words for Grace.
This emotional rhetoric is really dangerous, Martz cautioned.High emotionsBut for those in Libby who have lost loved ones to asbestosis or are themselves sick, emotional coolness doesnt come easily. Les Skramstad, for example, has a hard time being detached.
Skramstad, 65, worked for the Zonolite mine for 21/2 years and is dying of asbestosis. His wife and children have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, and Skramstad says W.R. Grace and Co. officials should be charged with murder for what theyve done to Libby.
Skramstad is one of the more than 120 Libby residents who have sued Grace over their illnesses. A jury in 1997 awarded Skramstad $660,000, an amount later lessened in a settlement agreement with the company.
I know doggone good and well if I took somebodys life, there would be something somebody could do about it, Skramstad said.
People dont seem to get it. The community is going to be here, he said.
The only way were really going to be able to live here is if we clean it up.
When the EPA first came to Libby, federal officials mounted a two-pronged attack, tackling medical and environmental issues at the same time.
On the medical side, federal health officers undertook the largest asbestos-exposure screening in U.S. history. They interviewed and scanned chest X-rays from nearly 6,200 past and current Libby residents, looking for respiratory problems and exposure to asbestos. The tests should give a better picture of exactly how big the problem of asbestos sickness is in Libby, Peronard said.
Thus far, the exposure and damage have turned out to be far more widespread than anyone had expected, even though the reports published in 1999 linked asbestos waste from the mine to nearly 200 deaths. By the time all is said and done, that number could look very small.
Federal officers also undertook a massive review of Libby death certificates to get a handle on what s happened in the past. Another national study found that the death rate for asbestosis in Libby was 60 times greater than the national average over the past 20 years.
The third part of the Libby medical studies is a long-term project that selected several dozen sick residents for in-depth case studies. Health officers want to know everything about each of the people, from how they were exposed to asbestos and how long it took to develop a disease from the exposure to how long each will live. Results from this study are due out sometime this fall.Checking hot spotsBesides the medical projects, the EPA also started work right away on asbestos hot spots around town. By summers end, Peronard said, the emergency response team will have completed nine significant cleanup projects. Two processing plants, two sites on and around the vermiculite mine and removal of asbestos from three school tracks and two residences are set for completion by the EPA this year.
When we started our investigations, it was just a simply matter of triage, Peronard said of the emergency cleanup work. Were trying to do the worst first and manage what we can get done.
By the end of this years construction season, Peronard said, the emergency response crew will have finished its work on the most pressing known asbestos hazards in Libby. But the task of making Libby safe and clean is far from over.
What will remain to be cleaned are Libbys homes, soil, sections of railroad tracks and the former mine site, Peronard said. That s barring an unforeseen pile of vermiculite popping up in a new location and requiring immediate attention. Such unexpected problems have arisen several times since the EPA came to Libby, such as when the team found mine waste on a grade school ice-skating rink.
To give the town a clean bill of health, we need to methodically look for this stuff all over town, Peronard said.
The EPA wants thorough investigations into where tremolite remains. Because miners and Libby residents were unaware for decades of the deadly hazards of mine waste and vermiculite rock, the substance that was hauled from the nearby hill has been dumped all over Libby .
Since theyve been working in Libby, EPA officials have found seemingly random piles of mine tailings and vermiculite spread in strange places around Libby. The high school and middle school tracks, both covered with tailings and now undergoing removal surgery, are prime examples of how the toxins were spread around town when residents believed that the waste was harmless.
Whats unique about Libby is how the contamination has been spread throughout town, said Peronard. Its located in discreet places where people have buried or filled.Doing it again…For its part, W.R. Grace already has had one chance at a major cleanup action in Libby since the EPA started work in 1999. Today, the EPA is demanding that the project be redone because it says it was shoddily done and didnt get rid of asbestos problems. Debate on that point has heightened the tensions between Grace and the EPA.
When the EPA this spring reviewed Graces work at the former mine export plant, where vermiculite was readied for shipping, health officials found lingering traces of asbestos. Chunks of vermiculite are visible to the naked eye near the export plants old buildings, where workers bagged and prepared vermiculite products for distribution.
Alan Stringer, Graces point man in Libby, defended the companys work. The EPA, he said, is saying that we didnt do a good job because you can still see vermiculite present. The mere presence of vermiculite doesnt mean you have a health hazard.
The EPAs Peronard said even getting the company to do the work was a logistical nightmare, with Grace fighting the EPA at every turn.
Theyve been very difficult to work with, Peronard said.
Still, he said, he wont shut the door on finding projects for Grace to complete, but the company can only work on property it owns.
Stringer said his company has wanted to do whatever needs to be done here from the beginning.
Nothing has changed there, with one exception, Stringer said. Now that weve filed for bankruptcy, there is that little kink.
The company earlier this year filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors, seeking a shield from a nationwide barrage of consumer lawsuits over asbestos products. The action threw dozens of Libby lawsuits into bankruptcy court, slowing the legal process. If Grace were to conduct the cleanup operations in Libby, Stringer said, the company likely would have to submit its plans to the federal bankruptcy court for approval.
Even so, Bill Corcoran, W.R. Grace and Co. vice president for public and regulatory affairs, said the company could get the job done fast.
We could get in, do the cleanup and do it effectively, Corcoran said.
Stringer said the company is willing to conduct a cleanup program under supervision of the EPA. And he said Grace could do the work more efficiently than could the government.
I think it could be done much more efficiently, Stringer said. I think private enterprise does things inherently more efficiently than government. The government wastes money.
But Peronard said the companys actions havent followed its words promising to cooperate. Normally, he said, the EPA works in a give-and-take with polluters on cleanup projects.
Theyve agreed to do absolutely nothing out here, Peronard said of Grace. Theyve had to be compelled to do it.Credibility issueIf it were to conduct the cleanup operations, Grace would need to overcome the credibility issues it faces with Libby residents. There s boiling anger against the company over evidence that its top officials knew early about the dangers of asbestos fibers produced in mining operations but did little or nothing to protect its employees and their families.
Les Skramstad, the former miner whos now dying of asbestosis, is adamant that a Superfund designation, not a Grace cleanup, is the only sure way to move forward in Libby.
Grace is a very nasty company, Skramstad said. I dont think they have respect for anything except money.
Stringer admits that theres a trust problem in Libby. But, he said, At some level, Grace is irrelevant. The people in this town want their town back. Nobody wants to raise their kids in a place thats known as America s Chernobyl.
Theres nothing I can say, probably, that would convince those who do not want to trust us, said Stringer. But for those people who try to keep an open mind on this, I would only say we are in business to do what has to be done.
If the EPA tells us to do something, we have to do it to their satisfaction, he said.
Peronard, however, said thats not been his experience with W.R. Grace. He said the company has been the most problematic polluter hes dealt with in 15 years of federal environmental enforcement.
Im very frustrated with them, Peronard said. I find it very difficult sometimes to even communicate with them.
For his part, Stringer takes jabs at Peronard at nearly every turn, underscoring the volatility of company and EPA relations. He and other Grace officials say Peronard s team is developing the science of tremolite asbestos in Libby as it goes and changing the rules at every turn.
Yes, we have challenged him on rationale, Stringer said of Peronard. I guess he only expects people to do what he says and not question it.
Peronard said hes not surprised by such comments. He says Graces tactics have often focused on painting his team as half-assed and making bad decisions.
Its just not true, Peronard said. The fact is that were being even more methodical and more exact in what were doing here.
Its really a dodge, he said of Graces tactics. The issue is, Is there something that needs to be cleaned up? The health risks associated with this material are clear. There is no real question of science.Whats next?Given the damaged relationship between the company and the EPA, even pressing forward with Superfund status is going to be a tough road. In most Superfund operations, the EPA works out agreements with polluters to conduct cleanup work and pay the bills. The history between the EPA and W.R. Grace in Libby suggests that getting such agreements could be a long, arduous battle for both sides.
While the agency hasnt put forth an official cleanup plan, Peronard said he believes that most of work inside the city of Libby could be completed within three years. The EPA cleanup plan would involve testing homes, buildings and surrounding land for dangerous asbestos levels and cleaning up contamination along the way, he said.
The entire city could be cleaned and removed from the Superfund priority list by 2004, unless theres something a whole lot different than what Ive seen so far, Peronard said.
Dealing with waste and exposure from the mine, which shut down in 1990, is a different matter, he said. Environmental experts would have to develop plans to cap and seal the former mine and the road leading to it to ensure no further exposure to the naturally occurring asbestos in the area.
The abandoned mine is still filled with vermiculite and its lethal partner, tremolite asbestos. Peronard said theres enough vermiculite ore still in the ground that Grace could have continued its mining operations for another 100 years.
Should the EPA take on cleanup plans for the mine, Peronard said, the work will take years. Hence, the notion of creating two separate Superfund listings — one encompassing the town and another including mine-related properties. That way, concerns about property values would be erased quickly, and federal agencies could continue years of oversight at the mine property.
But talk of Superfund listings in Libby triggers fears that such a move could devastate the towns economy.
Property values have dropped in Libby since the asbestos crisis came to light, according to local real estate agent Bob Beagle.
The EPA has its own evidence to show that Superfund designation can drive values down even further. One EPA report says that a decline in property values may never fully recover after completion of Superfund work, but prices do bounce back substantially at the end of a cleanup project.
Other questions surround a potential Superfund cleanup in Libby. Besides the effect such a designation could have on the local economy, a recent report found that the solvency of the Superfund program is in question. Resources for the Future, an independent research group, found that existing and future Superfund projects will cost between $14 billion and $16.4 billion from 2000 through 2009. At the end of the last fiscal year, the Superfund trust contained just $1.3 billion.
Steve Luftig, the EPA s director of Superfund cleanup operations, assured Libby residents recently that cleaning up their town would not get lost among the thousands of Superfund sites nationally. He said that even with potential budget problems, Libby cleanup would be at the top of the EPAs priority list.
We continue to view this as one of the most important cleanups nationally, Luftig said.
What were reaching in the future is we cant call it an emergency anymore, he said. We see the listing as a clear path to keep this cleanup going.
Still, Luftig cautioned, Theres no guarantee that Congress will fund the Superfund program.Further discussionIn the coming weeks, EPA officials will meet with state regulators to discuss Superfund listing proposals and the reasons behind their proposals.
The issue will then go up for public comment, and the EPA will ask for the governors consent before moving forward. In theory, Libby asbestos sites could be included on the National Priorities List by spring 2002.
|More about LibbyMonday: A look at the
role the governor, Congressional delegation play in the Libby
Tuesday: Is Libby a safe place to raise a family?
Stay up to date on Libby issues at MontanaForum.com
the fight in Libby rages on, Les Skramstad sees the whole thing as a no-brainer. Either Libby can move forward as a clean, healthy community under protection of the EPA, or it won t move forward at all, he believes. The arguments of economics dont mean much, Skramstad said, if people are afraid theyll get sick just by passing through town.
Do they want to stand on both sides of town with bottles of air, passing them out to the tourists? I dont think so, Skramstad said of local business leaders.
The town must be cleaned up, he said. Then you can move on.
Thatll probably be too late for the Fairbrothers, though: By that time, Ethan and Christina and their son Wyatt likely will have moved away from Libby.
Its up, its down, Ethan Fairbrother said. Nobody knows whats going on. I just know if we were somewhere else, the air would be safe.Libby already has experience with Superfund