The voice on the phone spoke with the confidence of authority: he had called to say that the people of Libby, Montana, were being screwed over once again. The culprit, however, was not the W.R. Grace & Co., whose asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine had been the source of death and disease for these folks for most of the 20th century. This time, the anonymous caller asserted, the Environmental Protection Agency was to blame.
He had my attention.
A contractor on the cleanup, he said, was secretly ignoring decontamination procedures in violation of federal law, while the EPA turned a blind eye. “It’s fraudulent and deceptive, and the blame goes all the way up.”
For the better part of 70 years, Libby miners dug away at a virtual mountain of vermiculite located about seven miles northeast of town as the raven flies. Under the auspices of the Grace corporation (which bought the mine in 1963), this small town in the far northwestern corner of Montana provided the vast majority of the world’s commercial vermiculite. Marketed as a soil conditioner and do-it-yourself housing insulation, Grace’s ore resides in the walls and attics of an estimated 35 million buildings in the United States. It also happens to be contaminated with a highly virulent form of asbestos referred to as Libby Amphibole.
Grace kept this information to itself for the nearly three decades it spent mining Libby of its wealth and health, tracking the decline of its workforce through annual medical exams, and blocking the inquiries of doctors and federal regulators when the stench of its secret aroused anyone’s curiosity.
The death toll ran to almost 200 before anyone outside of town noticed. A subsequent study found nearly one in five locals who volunteered for testing showed signs of lethal asbestos-related damage in their lungs. When the EPA rolled in at the tail end of 1999, its agents promised a new era of accountability. “In the past you’ve dealt with government as a broad, faceless bureaucracy,” team leader Paul Peronard told a packed town meeting hall. “Your satisfaction or not is my responsibility.”
Eight years later, Peronard finds himself on the hot seat. Apparently thinking no one would notice, a cleanup crew under the EPA’s supervision had stopped using filters on the pond water that was being used to decontaminate the dump trucks running back and forth from town to the old mine site with asbestos-laden soil–pond water that drains from the old mine tailings pile and itself carries a heavy load of asbestos.
My source (who wants to keep his job, and asked therefore to remain anonymous) says his own inquiries suggest these filters had not been used since 2003–a five-season long violation of the work, health and safety plans governing the cleanup operation (also, incidentally, a violation of federal law). The sham was only noticed when a W.R. Grace contractor–assisting in the cleanup–arrived last fall and inspected the setup.
That’s also what the EPA was supposed to be doing, along with its contractors: the Massachusetts-based Camp Dresser & McKee, and Environmental Restoration of St. Louis, MO. In fact, the EPA built in 12 layers of oversight for the Libby project, with Peronard at the top of the pyramid. Those things were supposed to be checked daily.
The intended cleanup scenario is pretty straightforward: contaminated building material goes to a specially built cell at the landfill to be contained indefinitely; contaminated yard waste goes back up to the old mine site to be buried. Crews on the soil team run a 10 hour shift of dump trucks each day, five days a week from spring to fall, accounting for between 3,700 and 4,000 trips along Highway 37 each year.
In order to minimize the chance of spreading contamination around, the EPA paved a portion of the Rainy Creek mine road as far as the “amphitheater” (a wide spot in the road where Grace trucks used to pull over and let each other pass, and where high school kids used to party). With Rainy Creek Road closed to the public since 2000, the amphitheater now hosts a waste transfer station where the trucks each chuck their loads of between 10 and 12 yards of asbestos-laden dirt, get washed off with filtered water from the Mill Pond, then turn around for another round trip to town. In this manner, the dump trucks never leave the pavement, and the contaminated dust gets rinsed off on a regular rotation. At least, theoretically.
There were to be two components to the filtering system, first straining out all fibers longer than 20 microns, then one going down to five microns (putting aside the question of whether asbestos fibers shorter than five microns are health hazards–emerging data suggests they are, particularly in non-cancerous but equally fatal forms of asbestos-related disease). The problem is, these filters clog up and need to be changed. EPA spokesperson Ted Linnert says they probably should be changed out twice a week on average; depending on the circumstances–spring runoff, sediment from construction activities, summer algae blooms–they might even clog on an hourly basis. Costing $25 for the 20-micron filter, and as much as $150 for the 5-micron filter, the process of swapping out filters could get to be an expensive aggravation very quickly. So at some point in time, ER workers merely left the filter housing–metal cylinders into which these bag or sock-like filters fit–in place and ran the water through the empty cylinders as though they were functional.
Peronard says he cannot be sure when, exactly, Environmental Restoration dumped the filters. “The official response from ER was that they were never responsible for switching these filters out under the contract,” he says, “and therefore they can’t ever vouch that it was ever done. That would be the answer that it had happened since at least 2003.” Prior to that year, the EPA provided filters. Then, the contracts were restructured so that ER bid a lump sum to do the entire job–an incentive to cut corners, Peronard acknowledges. But in 2003, the EPA gave the company a batch of leftover filters, then left them to their own devices. He assumes these leftovers got used.
Also, ER switched managers in 2005, and Peronard says this is another point at which the filters could have been dropped. He suspects the truth lies somewhere in between.
“I’m not sure I ever get to know that, by the way,” he says. “All of it speaks to your first question which is, hey you moron, how are you gonna keep these guys doing what they’re supposed to be doing?”
Apparently, not with the likelihood of serious repercussion. Although Congress mandates a fine of $7,000 for each of such serious violations of occupational safety rules (those likely to lead to death or serious harm), the EPA merely issued a “CURE notice,” giving ER the choice of remedying the situation or losing its contract. ER immediately slapped on some 100 micron filters, then began trucking in clean water for the final days of the 2007 season. No harm, no foul, no fine.
“I’m sure ER is apoplectic that such a relatively little thing threatened their entire contract,” Linnert says by way of explanation. “That’s why we’re not hell-bent on punishing ER–we already put the fear of god in them and the responsible employees have been reamed.”
My source is outraged for the people who live along the route, saying he’d sue if he were them. For my part, it’s easy enough to construct a likely scenario. It’s not uncommon in Libby to see moon-suited cleanup workers excavating in a yard, while a mother walks with a stroller on the sidewalk across the street. Or for workers in full protective gear to take air samples while doing household chores, to gauge the exposure to the family who will be doing those same chores later in the day. If the risk is that great, why are people still allowed to live there? And if it’s not, what difference do a couple of filters make To be fair, no one knows the answers. Meanwhile, the mixed messages abound.
For Peronard, the issue is less one of exposure from this particular breach–which he maintains is not that bad–but of the likelihood it’s a warning flag, that safety precautions and oversight may be failing in other parts of the operation. My source cites improper use of protective gear, and Peronard hears similar complaints. He’s called in the Army Corps of Engineers to audit the operation.
“You know on that list of big deals, the filters aren’t a big deal, at least in my mind. But they are emblematic of a larger problem and that is, we’ve been out there doing business for eight years, and it’s real easy to just get set in your ways and take things for granted,” he says. “Especially in town, in people’s homes, to me there are places where that kind of thing could leave contamination behind, it could lead to real cross-contamination.”
It’s that kind of pragmatism, combined with a disarming candor, that has served Peronard well in Libby. He tends to look beyond the written regulation to the spirit of the effort, and for that has been tremendously effective. But such an approach has its drawbacks: Along those lines, the EPA has devoted its cleanup money to getting vermiculite out of as many homes as possible, and is only now beginning to go back and investigate whether those cleanups are adequate.
For instance, the agency decided at the outset to leave a good deal of the vermiculite it finds in place: under carpets, between walls, in crawl spaces. The logic being that if the material is not disturbed, it’s not a threat. But the EPA’s own studies show that even minor activities–installing a ceiling fan, rummaging around in one’s attic–can be a very bad idea.
So last year, Peronard’s team got $7 million to begin an “activity-based sampling” program–to find out if the 900-odd houses they’ve worked through so far are actually safe. If they are, Peronard says there are 400 or so more on the queue in Libby, 300 they have yet to take a look at, and god knows how many in the neighboring town of Troy
“These are expensive investigations and every year we’d sit down and say, we’re going to spend our money cleaning up properties. It’s more important than doing sampling,” he says. “Well, the [Inspector General] came out last year and beat us over the head and shoulders, because while we were doing all these cleanups, we couldn’t tell people whether they were good enough. Or what the cleanup target was. That’s a pretty fair criticism.’
“So last year we started to correct that, to collect that information. All the rest of these questions–how many properties in Troy, how about these 700–are awaiting on that information. Whether we need to go back to the 900 properties that we’ve already cleaned up. There’s going to be a bad day, huh?”
Peronard is only half joking–there’s a very real possibility that the EPA will have to come back in and redo five year’s worth of work. He assured then-Gov. Judy Martz back in 2002 (as she considered whether or not to give her approval to the Superfund designation) that the EPA would be in and out in three years. “Silly me,” he says now. “Three years–what the hell was I thinking?”
Peronard is the master of the mea culpa, readily admitting his mistakes and acknowledging the ugly sorts of human tendencies that lead to situations like the one with the filters: finger-pointing and complacency. In response, the people of Libby largely have trusted him and his colleagues with their homes, with their families’ lives.
To be sure, W.R. Grace is the ultimate villain in this story, and the cleanup job of such monumental proportions, it would be impossible not to blunder now and then. But ER’s willful disregard for people’s health (what went through the head of the man who first took out those filters?), and the EPA’s collapse in oversight go beyond a situation where feeling “really awful” is an adequate response, the pending audit notwithstanding.
A better start would be to send each person involved in the fiasco door to door along Highway 37 to explain himself and apologize to those homeowners who were endangered by the crews’ laziness. In addition, Environmental Restoration has won contracts worth $20 million for its work in Libby since 2004. Peronard’s contrition would carry more weight if the EPA made damn sure ER paid a chunk of that back.
ANDREA PEACOCK is the author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation and co-author, with Doug Peacock, of The Essential Grizzly. She lives in Montana. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org