The final step in what was America’s largest ever-asbestos cleanup has been completed, with the United States Environmental Protection Agency handing control of the site in Libby, Montana to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The project began in 2005 and revolved around cleaning up the Superfund site in Montana, which was the site of a vermiculite mine contaminated by asbestos. Vermiculite is commonly used in compost and potting mix, but the site in Montana contained naturally occurring asbestos minerals, which can develop alongside the vermiculite.
The WR Grace & Co mine from which the vermiculite and asbestos material was mined, closed 30 years ago, but the effects of asbestos have been felt for more than 50 years. During the operation of the mine, miners who worked at the site, as well as local residents were affected by asbestos exposure.
The effects upon public health and the environment were so great that it was declared a federal public health emergency and was placed on the National Priorities List.
According to local health officials, there have been 400 deaths attributed to the asbestos exposure in the area, with an additional 2,400 people who have been diagnosed with related health issues at the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease Clinic in Libby during this cleanup period. The nature of asbestos-related diseases means that the number of affected people will likely increase over time.
As the cleanup is finished, the staggering numbers have been revealed. In total, more than one million cubic yards (881,782 metric tonnes) has been removed and replaced with clean fill.
Three thousand properties were affected by asbestos contamination, including local businesses, residences and backyards, and public parks and the EPA subsequently carried out clearance inspections at 8,200 properties. The total cost of the cleanup was $600 million (USD).
Lincoln County, in which Libby is located, holds the dubious title of having the highest asbestos-related mortality rate in America.
The EPA has left the state of Montana with an Institutional Control Implementation and Assurance Plan to ensure any residual asbestos is contained appropriately, which the EPA will review every five years.