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HELENA — Gov. Judy Martz wants proof that science and health standards warrant federal Superfund cleanup of Libby’s asbestos contamination, and she wants assurances that such a designation won’t harm the local economy or drain the state’s treasury, she has told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a letter Monday to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, Martz asked for full details of the scientific basis for a Superfund designation and what such an action might cost the state. She noted that under the Superfund program, the state could be liable for up to 10 percent of the cleanup costs. Martz also wants to know what has happened to other towns placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List, more commonly known as the Superfund program.

“It is essential that I have as complete an understanding as possible of the federal rules regarding asbestos exposure and cleanup as well as the implications of placing a municipality or large residential/commercial area on the National Priorities List in order to consult with your agency in the decision-making process with respect to Libby,” Martz wrote Monday in a letter to Whitman.

The governor wants a full briefing on the issue by a “senior staff member” from EPA headquarters, but she made it quite clear she doesn’t want that briefing from anybody on the EPA’s Libby team. In her letter, Martz said she wants the details from someone “who has not been involved directly in the Libby matter.”

“I want to make sure I have an objective understanding of the Libby situation so that I can fairly advise and respond to the people in the community,” Martz said.

Her reference hinted at the divisiveness in Libby over how best to remedy the town’s harmful contamination.

In recent months, EPA officials on the scene in Libby have said that Superfund designation for the town and related mine properties is the best option and would guarantee long-term federal funding and commitment to the cleanup. As it stands, another emergency project could come along and bump Libby to a lower priority on the EPA’s list.

The agency is working through proposals to add Libby to the Superfund list, but Montana’s Republican governor will have the final say over any such designation.

The EPA’s emergency response crew has been cleaning up widespread asbestos contamination in Libby since late 1999, when published reports linked waste from the nearby W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine to nearly 200 deaths. The mine, which shut down more than a decade ago, produced dangerous tromolite asbestos that has been tied to dozens and possibly hundreds of cases of asbestosis among former mine workers and Libby residents. The asbestos is a naturally occurring substance that was released into the air during the milling of vermiculite, another natural substance used for insulation and potting soils.

Since dozens of homes and gardens in Libby are filled with asbestos-laden insulation and potting soil, the EPA has said that a massive cleanup of residential areas is needed along with action at the mine site and other more heavily contaminated areas. EPA officials have suggested two Superfund sites — one containing the town, the other encompassing mine properties.

Shane Hedges, chief policy adviser to Martz, said the governor is looking for opinions from all sides of the issue. Hedges said the EPA will be just one source of information for Martz as she makes her decision. Martz also met recently with the chief executive officer of W.R. Grace and Co., along with other company officials, and has said she wants input from Libby residents about what to do.

Martz has not been to Libby since taking office in January. Hedges said she is planning to visit “sooner, rather than later” this summer. The governor had been waiting to visit Libby with Whitman, who recently said she won’t make it to Montana this summer.

In her letter Monday, Martz outlined several of her concerns with Superfund designation. First, she said, she wants to make sure that the scientific evidence and federal standards for asbestos exposure warrant such a step. The governor said she also wants specific details about what the state might end up paying for if the EPA isn’t successful in attempts to recover cleanup costs from W.R. Grace and Co., which filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors this year.

Martz said that if the science and health reports she has requested confirm EPA’s inclination to create a Superfund site around Libby, she then wants details of what other towns have done after being placed on the list. EPA studies have shown that property values tend to drop with a Superfund listing, then recover and even rise once the cleanup is complete.

The governor has asked whether the Superfund program could handle purchasing all the homes and businesses in Libby. EPA officials have said talk has circulated about moving the entire town, but such an option is not feasible.

Martz is not expected to make any decision on Superfund status for Libby until late this year.

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