Asbestos Town

This Feb. 17, 2010, aerial file photo, shows the town of Libby. Environmental officials say a portion of Libby's asbestos cleanup has been completed and will be removed from the federal Superfund list. The 45-acre area removed from the National Priorities List Wednesday is 5 miles north of downtown, and it is only one of eight units of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site. 

After nearly two decades, a portion of the Libby Superfund Site is starting to come off the federal list of high-priority hazardous waste sites.

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was deleting a 45-acre parcel of the Superfund site, designated as Operable Unit 2, from the National Priorities List. The decision means that the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that no further cleanup activities are needed to protect human health and the environment. Operations and maintenance there, however, will continue.

For decades, W.R. Grace and Co. mined, processed and shipped vermiculite  products contaminated with asbestos fibers at sites in and near Libby. The EPA has been working to remediate the area since 2000; it’s been on the National Priorities List since 2002.

The agency divided the cleanup into eight “Operable Units.” Operable Unit 2 covers about 45 acres on the south side of the Kootenai River, about five miles from downtown Libby. It’s centered on a screening plant where Grace sorted vermiculite by size and quality from 1975 to 1990, as well as the Flyway property, the Highway 37 right‐of‐way next to the former screening plant, Rainy Creek Road and privately owned properties, according to the EPA.

Since 2000, the EPA has been removing contaminated soil and taking other steps to make the unit safe. It proposed deleting the unit in February, and, after receiving no public comments, finalized the decision on Tuesday.

It’s the first operable unit to come off the National Priorities List. Katherine Jenkins with the EPA predicted that this change in designation wouldn’t make a difference on the ground. “You wouldn’t expect to see any changes,” she said. “We’ll still continue to see operation and maintenance.”

The final remedial action report, agreed to in 2012 by the state, the EPA and other parties, called for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to take over operations and maintenance of the site, at a projected cost of $357,000 per year.

The department took over that work last year, according to its public information specialist, Christine Mandiloff, and EPA’s Mike Cirian. The funds come from a settlement the EPA reached with W.R. Grace.

“We don’t expect the public will notice any significant changes at the site,” Mandiloff wrote in an email. She said the department “will conduct annual inspections on the site and EPA will conduct five-year-review inspections.”

The other seven operable units remain on the list for now. The EPA’s Cirian said the agency may move to delete Operable Unit 1, a former railroad export plant on the town’s riverfront, sometime in 2020, and Operable Unit 5, site of the former Stimson Lumber Mill, in the next year and a half.

“I think that it’s just one step in the process,” Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett said of the announcement. “We have several OUs there that they’ll be working through.”

At the same time, he considers Operable Unit 2’s deletion “a really positive thing for Libby as we begin to see things finalized and moving over to the state DEQ rather than a federal site.”

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