Before Judy Lundstrom finally agreed to let the Environmental Protection Agency remove asbestos from her property, she wanted to know what her yard would look like after cleanup workers dug up the soil and removed the contaminated material.
Lundstrom, 72, said she was told by an EPA official that her yard, pasture, flower beds and garden would be “put back the same way, if not better.”
Three years later, after countless visits by EPA officials and contractors, Lundstrom said she has had enough. The asbestos has been removed, but she fears her property will never look as good as it once did.
“After they first did my lawn in 2010, I told them ‘This isn’t right. It shouldn’t be this way,’” Lundstrom said. “I’ve been going through this with (the EPA) for three years now. As far as I’m concerned they haven’t done anything right. It’s been a nightmare.”
Flooding was the first problem Lundstrom noticed after the first EPA cleanup effort in 2010. The elevations of her property had been altered, she said, and some portions of her yard that had never flooded in 40 years were now retaining water above the surface.
The next spring, her flower beds didn’t grow anything. Neither did her garden. Both areas, she said, contained high concentrations of clay in the soil.
She laid sod in her yard after the EPA’s soil appeared too rocky to sustain grass. But even the sod refused to put up grass, she said. A new sprinkler system also didn’t help much. Neither did multiple rounds of fertilizer.
At one point, an EPA contractor drove over her mailbox. Another time, her fence tipped to one side after replacement soil near her horse pasture failed to hold the fence posts in place.
“Nothing is really for the landowner,” she said. “They have no concerns for the landowner.”
Lundstrom has filed three complaints and has called the EPA’s hotline countless times, looking for someone who will return her property to its former glory.
Lundstrom was in a quandary after continuous attempts for help were handed off to different departments and repeated visits by government contractors proved unhelpful in restoring her yard .
Along the way, Lundstrom spent upwards of $15,000 of her own money on yard maintenance. Still, the only part of her lawn that was fully green was a small, square section of her backyard that was left untouched by the EPA because it didn’t contain any asbestos fibers.
“I have been sprinkling and fertilizing and taking care of it more than before the EPA got here,” she said. “It’s hard to lose everything so suddenly. My yard has been my pride and joy.”
The EPA cleanup activities vary at each property site, depending on how each property is used and other factors. Since the EPA first sent teams of remedial workers to Libby in 2002, the cleanup methods have changed repeatedly as the agency learns more about the toxicity of amphibole asbestos and the costs associated with the cleanup.
Mike Cirian, onsite remedial project manager of the EPA’s Region 8 office in Libby, said the EPA has shared as much information as possible to introduce the entire process of remedial action to property owners. EPA visits include an investigation, survey, detailed investigation, evaluation, removal and restoration.
Cirian refused to comment specifically about Lundstrom’s property or the costs that property owners have incurred as a result of the EPA’s cleanup activities.
However, he said the EPA is responsible for restoring the amount of property excavated from each site – so, if the agency removes six inches of soil from a lawn, then six inches of non-contaminated soil is put back. Replacement soil must meet federally approved agronomy standards that allow grass to grow. The EPA provides a grass seed/fertilizer mix toward the lawn restoration, and advises homeowners to take care of their new lawn properly.
The EPA provides money for only standard remodeling and soil replacement. Property owners are required to pay for anything extra.
“We are not allowed to do betterments, but we’ll put back soils that will grow grass,” Cirian said.
The EPA has replaced Lundstrom’s mailbox and fencing. Agency officials also have met repeatedly with Lundstrom to discuss her complaints.
“I have no idea how many times they’ve been out here,” Lundstrom said.
Steven Milloy, a commentator for Fox News and founder of www.junkscience.com, said the science behind the EPA’s cleanup activities in Libby remains murky. Even some asbestos experts have had difficulty making sense of the data distributed by the EPA, let alone regular folks in Libby, he said.
Milloy has traditionally engaged with topics where he believes scientific research has promoted false claims or been overstated. He has written several articles for his website focused on the EPA.
“The largest businesses in America – Exxon Mobil for example – are at the EPA’s mercy. So of course for a person in Libby, how do you challenge the EPA? It’s just shocking,” said Milloy. “This could never happen in any place where people can afford lawyers. This only happens where the EPA can abuse these people.”
So far, the EPA has removed asbestos from 1,825 homes and businesses in the Libby area. While some property owners are upset with the results of the EPA’s work, hundreds of others have refused to let the EPA screen or inspect their property.
The EPA visited Donna O’Neil’s home during 2008 and 2009. Today, she describes her lawn as a green blanket covered in yellow patchwork.
O’Neil said the EPA-approved mix of soil used to replace the excavated areas of her lawn lacked the nutrients needed to grow grass and plants. Some areas proved to be too difficult to revive, leading to changes in her yard.
“I had two flower beds that don’t even exist anymore,” O’Neil said. “I just had them put rocks in there instead. It’s too hard.”
In an attempt to rescue her lawn back to full strength, O’Neil paid for fertilizer to apply to the post-removal areas of her property. The EPA paid for the replacement soil, leaving her responsible for the fertilizer to reboot the lawn, which can cost up to 10 times more than soil.
While O’Neil is not upset with EPA workers or contractors, she said the EPA’s policies and procedures are unfair to property owners.
“You see nothing and sign nothing that says you’re satisfied,” she said.
O’Neil said she has spent more than $2,000 to maintain her lawn since the EPA removed asbestos.
Mike Powers, also a frequent flier of EPA visitation, still lives with the debris from the EPA cleanup at his home.
Where EPA contractors parked their vehicles, an underground water line burst and caused a large, 3-foot deep depression in the ground a few yards from Powers’ home. He received a visit from EPA contractors soon after to replace the waterline before he restored the lost soil himself.
“We have come to a personal agreement, because I have my own backhoe and equipment, that they can remove the contaminated area and I’ll refill them,” Powers said.
Other damages included the loss of an area of lawn where gasoline was spilled into a generator and oil residue had leaked over into the grass. A 100-year-old weeping willow tree was removed after the replaced soil failed to provide proper nutrients. Before a caulking job inside the walls of his home, Powers could see through the wall logs composing his home and through the windows across the room, revealing the rows of trees to the west where vermiculite insulation and wall paneling had been removed.
“They spent a small fortune on engineers. I imagine they recorded when they were surveying my place, but when they were done you couldn’t recognize my place,” Powers said.
Powers said his current battle lies with an assault on his lawn by a host of weeds that relocated to patches of replacement soil.
“I believe Libby is better off with the EPA here. The problem is management, and a lack of leadership,” he said. “But we’ve outlived it. We’ve outlasted the stupidity.”
Georgine Powers said she and her husband have also spent at least $2,000 of their own money on property repairs since their first remedial visit in 2003. The EPA has notified Powers that two more inspections will be needed on his property.
Lundstrom, however, said she simply doesn’t have the strength to continue fighting with the EPA.
“The EPA is a whole different breed,” she said. “They’ve beat me down to the point where I don’t have any oomph left.”