Montana set to take over deadly asbestos cleanup site

The cleanup of a northwest Montana community where health officials say hundreds of people have been killed by asbestos exposure entered a new phase Thursday as officials begin crafting ways to keep residents safe over the long term.

The five-member Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team was scheduled to meet for the first time after being established by the Montana Legislature earlier this year.

The advisory team of state and local officials and one citizen selected by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will work with environmental agencies to come up with ways to prevent further exposure to asbestos that remains beneath the soil and in the walls of many houses in the small towns of Libby and Troy.

The contaminated material can cause fatal lung diseases and other health issues. It came from a W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine that operated for decades just outside Libby, a town of about 2,700 people near the Idaho border.

Since 1999, a cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed more than a million cubic yards of dirt and building materials from about 2,400 properties in the area. That work — conducted under the agency’s Superfund program for the cleanup of highly contaminated sites — is expected to largely finish in coming months with total costs expected to top $600 million.

As the EPA gets ready to take much of the area off the Superfund list, state and local agencies must come up with ways to handle future asbestos discoveries, such as when a house is renovated or an underground vermiculite deposit is found during excavation work.

There’s been no attempt to quantify how much asbestos will remain when the cleanup is finished.

Health workers have estimated that as many as 400 people have died and almost 3,000 have been sickened from exposure in Libby and the surrounding area.

The W.R. Grace mine was shuttered in 1990. The company agreed in a 2008 settlement to pay the EPA $250 million for cleanup work.

There is not yet a cleanup plan for the highly-contaminated mine site and surrounding portions of the Kootenai National Forest — a nearly 16-square mile (41-sq. kilometer) area that also includes some state and private land.