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LibbyMt.com > News > July 2011 > EPA: No asbestos exposure linked to bark

EPA: No asbestos exposure linked to bark
by Brent Shrum, Kootenai Valley Record
July 16, 2011

Preliminary testing of asbestos-contaminated wood chips and bark piled at the former Stimson mill and sold as landscaping material showed no exposures to workers conducting simulated occupational activities, the Environmental Protection Agency stressed last week in the wake of news stories focusing on the potential risks associated with the material.

The agency conducted the tests in 2008 after a study of bark from trees near the defunct W.R. Grace vermiculite mine showed the presence of asbestos fibers. The bark showed asbestos levels lower than 1 percent, said local EPA project manager Mike Cirian. Subsequent testing of bark from the mill site, now owned by the Lincoln County Port Authority and operated as an industrial park, showed the presence of asbestos in four of 20 samples, although the tests did not indicate a percentage.

Because of the positive test results in several samples, the EPA followed up with "activity based sampling," in which workers donned protective gear and simulated the use of the material in practical scenarios. Those samples came back negative, showing that the workers had not been exposed to asbestos, Cirian said.

The results of the tests were made available to Libby’s Community Advisory Group, which is set up to share information with the EPA, and were also available for public review at the local EPA office, Cirian said. After sampling results were discussed at meetings earlier this year, the Port Authority management voluntarily stopped selling the material, he added.

Further testing is planned, but the wood bark is "not an imminent concern for us," Cirian said.

"We have to focus our concerns on where we can most reduce exposures," he said.

While the bark is not a major concern if used in typical applications such as around the base of a tree, if used in a children’s play area the EPA would probably remove the material to be on the safe side, Cirian said.

Reacting to an Associated Press news story highlighting potential risks from the contaminated bark, Libby Mayor Doug Roll said the report seemed based on information "from a very small group."

"They represent a very small faction that has very strong feelings on this issue, and I feel that sometimes resources are wasted on things that aren’t a hazard, or don’t appear to be a hazard," Roll said.

Both U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Congressman Denny Rehberg have called on EPA head Lisa Jackson to investigate the issue.

"I made sure Administrator Jackson understands the pain folks in Libby have endured and just how harmful reopening these wounds can be to the community’s efforts to heal both psychologically and economically," Baucus said.

"Administrator Jackson has made important strides in Libby by working with me to get a public health emergency declared. I’m confident she knows how serious I am about repairing this broken trust and addressing potential safety concerns quickly and completely. I will keep holding EPA accountable to find out exactly what was known about potential hazards in the wood chips, when it was known and whether more needs to be done to ensure the safety of folks in Libby and across the country who were exposed."

Rehberg sent a letter to the Jackson, demanding answers and calling the agency’s response to the issue "downright negligent."

"These chips may be dangerous, or they may not be, and the fact that we don’t know because the EPA has shirked its responsibility is unacceptable," Rehberg said. "The folks in Libby want to put the asbestos mess behind them, but they can’t do that while they are waiting for the EPA to do its job. They want answers, and so do I."

Roll said he wished Baucus and Rehberg would have done more research prior to issuing their statements.

"While we appreciate the senator and congressman’s help and concern, we would appreciate it if they would call someone before they react to such a slanted and biased news article," he said.

Lincoln County Commissioner Tony Berget said the reports raise numerous questions, such as the potential hazards involved with the historical use of wood from the Libby mill to make plywood and paper.

"Are we to treat all of it as potentially contaminated?" Berget asked.

Asbestos fibers can be found in air samples taken in any city in the country, Berget said.

"This is such a miniscule part of the overall picture," he said.

Libby Area Chamber of Commerce director Dusti Thompson, whose job entails reassuring people that it’s safe to visit or live in Libby, said she was shocked when she saw last week’s news reports.

"I was just severely appalled that they did not take the time to do the research and get the facts," she said.

The results of the EPA’s tests weren’t a secret, Thompson said.

"I knew," she said. "The EPA told us. They had community meetings about the bark."

Thompson said her phone was ringing "off the hook" last week with calls from people concerned about vacationing in or moving to the area.

"People think that if they come here they’re going to see a bunch of zombie corpses walking around, all on our last legs," she said.

Editor's Note: See the July 12, 2011 edition of the Kootenai Valley Record for the printed version of this story. The Kootenai Valley Record publishes once a week, on Tuesdays, in Libby, Montana. They are a locally owned community newspaper, located at 403 Mineral Avenue in Libby. For in-county and out-of-county subscription information, call 406-293-2424, or e-mail kvrecord@gmail.com.

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