Future oversight of Superfund site may not include air quality monitoring

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The EPA’s pending hand off of oversight responsibilities to the state for maintaining federal Superfund cleanup work in and around Libby will continue funding for the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program.

That’s the plan, anyway, according to Virginia Kocieda, director of the Asbestos Resource Program (ARP). There’s one exception.

To date, there isn’t a funding source to continue monitoring community air quality in the event of a fire at the unit of the Libby Superfund site that contains and surrounds the former vermiculite mine.

During a Jan. 22 meeting with Lincoln County Commissioners Mark Peck (D-1) and Josh Letcher (D-3), Kocieda said ARP has struck a cooperative agreement with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for continued funding out of a pot of EPA money.

She said ARP sent the department a draft of its scope of work and is putting numbers together for an estimated budget.

Established in 2012, ARP has been funded through an EPA grant. The Libby-based program provides education about the risks associated with exposure to asbestos. And it works with homeowners and contractors as they tackle renovation or demolition projects potentially exposing them to vermiculite.

The EPA announced plans last year to turn over to DEQ in 2020 the “operations and maintenance” of Superfund operable units in Libby and Troy where remediation of deadly asbestos contamination was deemed complete.

Fibers from the asbestos can embed in lung tissue and cause fatal lung disease.

In 1999, EPA officials responded to citizen, local government and media concerns about exposure to asbestos from vermiculite mining that began in the 1920s. The EPA placed the Libby site on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in October 2002.

Operable Unit 3 is the property in and around the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. The site includes the forest surrounding the mine. Libby amphibole asbestos is present in soil, duff, tree bark and ash in the forest around the former mine, according to the EPA.

Kocieda told county commissioners that funding wouldn’t be available from EPA — or DEQ — in their future cooperative agreement for community air quality monitoring in the case of a wildfire in Operable Unit 3.

But she said they are pursuing grant opportunities to continue that work. The EPA has said that when asbestos-containing duff is burned, most of the fire-related exposure is from the resulting ash.

Peck suggested that W.R. Grace might be a source of grant funding.

Meanwhile, ARP remains housed in the Courthouse Annex building on Mineral Avenue. It shares the second floor with the Lincoln County Health Department and Kocieda said a move to a larger space is in the works. Relocation could allow ARP to grow, she said.

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