A long-delayed risk study released Monday for a Montana mining town where hundreds of people have died from asbestos poisoning concludes cleanup practices now in place are reducing risks to residents.
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged there is no way to remove all the asbestos from the area and inhaling even a minute amount could cause lung problems.
The 328-page draft document will be used to guide the remaining cleanup of asbestos dust stemming from a W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine outside Libby, a town of 2,600 people about 50 miles south of the Canada border.
The scenic mountain community has become synonymous with asbestos dangers. Health workers estimate 400 people have been killed and more than 2,000 sickened in Libby and the surrounding area.
Dozens of sites across the U.S. received or processed vermiculite from Libby's mine, which was used as insulation in millions of homes.
The EPA study used lung scarring — not just cancer deaths — to help determine how much danger asbestos poses to people who remain in Libby, where the contaminated vermiculite had been widely used in homes, as construction fill, and for other purposes before its dangers were known.
The EPA already has conducted cleanup work on more than 2,000 homes, businesses and other properties in the Libby area at a cost of roughly $500 million.
Concentrations of asbestos in the air around town is now 100,000 times lower than when the mine was operating from 1963 to 1990, the EPA said.
Those levels could be higher at the mine site — where cleanup work has barely started — and in areas where property owners have not given access to EPA contractors, the agency said.
"Where EPA has conducted cleanup, those cleanups are effective," said Rebecca Thomas, EPA project manager in Libby.
She added that there will be some residual contamination left behind but only in places where officials determine there's no threat of human exposure.
"As long as no one's exposed to it, it doesn't pose a risk and we'll leave it in place," Thomas said.
W.R. Grace and industry groups have criticized the EPA's low threshold for exposure as unjustified and impossible to attain. They said the EPA limit was lower than naturally occurring asbestos levels in some places.
The criticism was one of the factors that delayed the risk study. In a report last year, the EPA's inspector general said internal agency issues including contracting problems and unanticipated work also contributed to the delay.
W.R. Grace was "pleased to see EPA believes it has effectively managed the health risk to acceptable levels," said Rich Badmington, a spokesman for the Columbia, Maryland-based chemical company
Still, the company believes the EPA's threshold for exposure is too low, he said.
The town remains under a first-of-its kind public health emergency declaration issued by former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009.
Cleanup work is pending for as many as 500 homes and businesses in Libby and nearby Troy. Completing that work will take three to five years, Thomas said.
Because of the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases, it could be many years before some people in Libby develop medical complications.
Libby Mayor Doug Roll said moving forward with the study was critical for the tourism- and mining-dependent town. Roll said Libby wants to overcome its image of a poisoned community.
"Grace was the stumbling block, trying to put a bunch of their input into it," Roll said. "We're trying to get out from underneath this cloud and start promoting Libby as a place you can come and visit — and not worry about the air quality."