EPA Declares First-Ever Public Health Emergency

Saturday, June 20, 2009
Libby Resident Bob Dedrick at Cemetery for Asbestos Victims (photo: a scene from "Libby, Montana")

The small town of Libby, Montana, home to one of the worst cases of asbestos contamination in the country, has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare its first-ever public health emergency. Coming under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the EPA declaration “underscores the need for further action and health care for area residents who have been or may be exposed to asbestos,” according to an agency announcement.

Cases of asbestos-related lung disease in Libby are considered to be “staggeringly higher” than the national average, with an estimated 1,200 residents having died or developed asbestosis. Victims include many who did not work at a local mine, owned by W.R. Grace & Co., which is believed to have produced more than 70% of all asbestos-laced vermiculite sold in the United States from 1919 to 1990. Vermiculite was once commonly used in insulation, lightweight concrete and potting soil.
An ongoing lawsuit against W.R. Grace has revealed that company officials knew as early as 1976 that mine employees were experiencing lung abnormalities, but they chose to keep secret corporate studies warning of health problems. The company continued to operate the mine until 1990, and it donated asbestos-tainted mine tailings to a high school and elementary school.
EPA’s top official, Lisa Jackson, called Libby a “tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government,” and she pledged “to move aggressively” on cleanup efforts.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Libby Asbestos (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Deadliest U.S. Environmental Crime Goes to Trial (by David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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