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Libby cleanup grinds on
By SONJA LEE
Tribune Staff Writer
LIBBY When the Environmental Protection Agency came to clean up Mel and Lerah Parker's contaminated property, the couple thought it would take about six months.
So did the EPA.
In May of 2000, the Parkers were ordered to leave their home, a 21-acre site along the Kootenai River just north of town where they operated Raintree Nursery. The property was heavily contaminated with asbestos.
Within the next year everything on the property the grand piano, the forklift, the house, the satellite TV, the boat, the garden shed was bulldozed. The Parkers documented 7,200 items that were completely destroyed.
That was five years ago. The Parkers still can't go home.
Nestled in a valley of the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, Libby was home to the vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co. from 1963 until it closed in 1990. In 1999 newspaper reports broke, blaming asbestos in the vermiculite for sickening and killing hundreds of people in the community.
The news sent the EPA into emergency response mode.
"We were scared to death," Parker said, flipping through pictures of the former nursery. "The newspapers said hundreds of people had died. We were so frightened of what was going to happen to us and even our grandchildren."
While many Montana towns faced reclamation in the face of closed mines, Libby is unique. The magnitude of the problems in Libby only recently was exposed. And as the cleanup goes on, residents are still sick and dying.
Doctors treat residents poisoned by the mine in clinics just blocks away from crews in HazMat suits cleaning up polluted homes.
Because of that strange juxtaposition, Libby remains the top priority for cleanup in the EPA's six-state region that includes Montana.
Only about 2,600 people live in Libby, but some 12,000 live within a 10-mile radius of town.
The Parkers are hopeful the cleanup on their property will be done, maybe even by spring.
But it is questionable when the EPA will ever be "done" in Libby. The Parker property, while one of the most complicated cleanups, is one of hundreds of contaminated homes and sites.
Investigators found that the tainted vermiculite wasn't just used as building insulation in Libby. People took home bags and used it as fill in gardens, playing fields and even on the high school track.
Libby was officially added to the federal Superfund cleanup list in 2002.
Reclaiming this mountain town is in high gear, and between $17 million and $19 million is spent on the effort each year.
The EPA figures about half of that roughly $9 million a year is pumped straight back into the local community either through jobs or dollars spent, said Mike Cirian, EPA remedial project manager in Libby.
"The people working for the contractors are almost exclusively local," Cirian said.
Four EPA staffers permanently relocated to Libby. And about 100 people work for a variety of contractors doing cleanup work. In fact, the EPA is the third largest employer in town.
Libby is becoming a training ground for construction workers to earn licenses for removing asbestos. The Flathead Valley Community College Lincoln County campus is teaming up with the state and federal government on the program.
"It will be free to local contractors on a first-come, first-serve basis," Cirian said.
The idea is to train Libby electricians, plumbers and other tradesmen to properly handle and dispose of Libby asbestos.
Long after the EPA and its contractors pull out of Libby, the community will continue dealing with asbestos removal. Asbestos can be found in insulation, boiler lining, fire protection, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, decorative surfacing, linoleum and even the mud between sheet rock.
Montana law says that trained and licensed asbestos abatement contractors must perform the removal of any asbestos-containing materials.
"This way it won't take that work away from local contractors," Cirian said of the training program.
It's impossible, however, to view cleanup jobs and college training in Libby in a fully positive light.
Hundreds of people in the community are dying from asbestos exposure. An estimated 250 people are already dead.
Nearly one in five residents screened in Libby has scarring of the lining of their lungs. Adding to concerns is that diseases associated with asbestos often have a latency period of 10 to 30 years and can be difficult to diagnose.
Asbestosis is a serious lung disease that worsens as time passes, making it harder and harder for victims to breathe.
At Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease, about 20 new patients a month come through the door.
The nonprofit clinic is devoted to caring for current and former Lincoln County residents. Since the dangers of Libby vermiculite were exposed in 1999, the clinic grew from three employees to nine. In the last two years, the clinic outgrew its old space and relocated to a larger office.
"We're seeing close to 1,400 patients now," said Kimberly Rowse, a registered nurse at the clinic. "And we are seeing more and more people present symptoms."
A state study shows medical costs for people sickened by asbestos exposure in Libby could exceed $32.2 million in the next five years.
Of the 3,500 Libby homes and buildings screened by the EPA, about one-fourth contained some level of asbestos fibers in the attics, walls or lawns.
EPA estimates that 1,200 to 1,400 residential and business properties need some type of cleanup. Cleanups are complete at 578 of them.
The EPA readily admits Libby has been a learning experience, and many of its techniques were untested.
Officials initially planned to remove asbestos-contaminated insulation from the walls of all Libby homes and businesses. They later decided it was not financially possible and likely not necessary. Officials now are removing exposed asbestos in attics and other exposed areas.
Cleanups can include pulling out Zonolite insulation, removing vermiculite used in yards and gardens, and zeroing in on other spots where the ore might have been used. In one garage, the dirt floor was 5 percent asbestos.
"People here found a lot of ways to use it," Cirian said.
Contaminated areas, such as the football field and the nearby track and field area where vermiculite was found, were some of the first areas cleaned when the EPA arrived.
The EPA developed new methods to determine what, if any, levels of asbestos might be acceptable.
"As this moved forward, the science has gotten better," Cirian said.
And a lot has changed since the EPA found as much as 12 feet of contamination in areas of the Parker property. At the time, the practice was to destroy everything on the land.
Knowing what they know now, the EPA might approach the Parker property differently, said Courtney Zamora, site manager for Volpe, one of the contractors working in Libby.
Many of the disagreements between the Parkers and the contractors are about restoring the property, the Parkers said.
But in Libby, where the cleanup on each property is a little bit different, the agency is doing everything it can to work with residents, Zamora said.
During one interior cleanup, the house froze up. Even the fish tank turned into an ice cube, Zamora said. In other cases, property owners change their mind about a cleanup, and the EPA comes back in to accommodate.
"If we make a mistake, we correct it," she said.
The EPA and its contractors are striving to fulfill the promises made in 1999.
"That's been one of the toughest battles," she said. "We came in and we said we are cleaning up everything."
Not everyone is satisfied.
Gordon and Cathie Sullivan's Libby home is valued at about $60,000. The cleanup cost $140,000.
Gordon Sullivan, the former leader of the Libby Technical Assistance Group, isn't convinced the EPA and its contractors are doing enough. He views every contaminated property in Libby as an individual Superfund.
He also doesn't believe leaving behind tainted vermiculite in walls or other contained areas is safe. Those properties will disintegrate or be remodeled, and people will once again be exposed, he said.
It costs an average $25,000 to get rid of asbestos contamination in a home and $5,000 to simply clean out a flowerbed. The entire Libby cleanup project could cost $200 million, according to the EPA.
Big, loud, blue boxes rattle in front of homes being cleaned. They move from house to house, where insulation and other products tainted by asbestos are sucked through a hose and deposited inside.
During a cleaning, homeowners typically move into a motel or make their own arrangements. Each receives a stipend for as long as the cleanup takes, which can range from a few days to a few weeks.
Sullivan said in most cases, contaminated homes should simply be demolished. He believes tearing down properties and replacing them would save money, although he acknowledges if homes in Libby are torn down, it will ignite a firestorm.
There is much uncertainty among federal agencies concerning just what are safe levels of exposure to the insulation. The insulation likely lurks in millions of homes across the country.
Mel Parker reminisces about the site the perfect spot for a plant nursery. Lerah Parker tries to be upbeat about moving home, but she's still angry.
"We don't have our business. We don't have our home. We don't have an income, and it's been too long," she says.
In 1993 the couple bought the site, including some buildings from Grace. Six years later they learned of the asbestos contamination from newspaper reports.
They receive $1,900 a month allowance from the EPA.
The Parkers purchased another home and continue to fight for the restoration of their property.
"We are grateful to the EPA for cleaning up our property," Lerah Parker said. "Looking back on Libby, there are so many things we question. We were the guinea pigs."
In January the agency will issue a report that offers what amounts to a final say on Libby cleanup. That report could mean the EPA and its contractors revisit many of the sites already cleaned up.
The complicated reclamation of Libby is far from complete.
As long as doctors are treating those sickened by the mine, crews will be scouring sections of the tainted town.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Sonja Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (406) 791-1471 or (800) 438-6600.