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Asbestos fears cloud mine hearing

Asbestos fears cloud mine hearing

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Associated Press Dillon ore different than Libby's, Stansbury officials say

DILLON (AP) - A fear of asbestos contamination, fueled by continuing problems in Libby and testimony from some northwestern Montana residents, tainted a hearing on the Stansbury Holdings Corp.'s hopes of expanding an existing vermiculite mine southeast of Dillon.

Company efforts to allay the asbestos scare failed during Thursday night's packed meeting at the Dillon City Council Chambers.

The problems at Libby have changed the standard the state uses in looking at new vermiculite mining operations, said Warren McCullough, a Department of Environmental Quality official.

"The fact that we are here taking another look at this proposal - taking it to a higher level of scrutiny - is directly because of Libby," he told a crowd of about 70 people.

Stansbury officials said the ore being mined in Dillon is unlike that found in Libby and asbestos levels are either low or nonexistent.

"We think this is very good body of ore," said Stansbury Holdings President A.J. Coffman. "We believe this property has the potential to be the best vermiculite mine west of the Mississippi."

Gayla Benefield of Libby said the W.R. Grace and Co. told Libby residents their vermiculite mine was safe and "you know what happened there."

She said it's important that people ask questions and require state officials to provide good answers.

The meeting was held to provide additional information to a City Council committee that will recommend what action, if any, the council should take on the proposed mine expansion. Members decided to recommend asking the state to develop a full environmental impact statement.

As proposed, the Dillon Vermiculite Mine would expand from about four acres to 75.

The DEQ and Bureau of Land Management completed an environmental assessment last spring that would have allowed the expansion and there was no opposition.

Since then, news accounts of the deaths and illnesses linked to mining asbestos-laced vermiculite changed all that, and the DEQ decided to take another look at the Dillon proposal.

McCullough said the DEQ likely will extend the public comment period on the proposal through June 7.

Coffman said Stansbury plans to closely monitor the ore it mines. Results of monitoring tests will be made available to the DEQ on a regular basis throughout the life of the mine. Those monitoring results will also be available to the public through the state agency, he said.

Pockets of ore may contain asbestos material on the mine site, but Coffman said the company will steer clear of them.

A report the company presented predicts risks for both workers at the mine and for Dillon residents would be lower than what might be expected from smoking a single cigarette in a lifetime.

Many of those who testified said they didn't trust the company's word on the safety issues.

Nathan Miller, a 22-year-old Dillon man, said the fact the company is headquartered somewhere other than Dillon worries him.

"I just don't trust these guys," Miller said. "They are not from here and they're not going knee-deep in it like the rest of us."

Sheila Roberts, a Dillon geologist, said the bottom line is no one knows for sure how much asbestos is at the mine site. She said she couldn't understand why there would be any resistance to requiring a more comprehensive environmental impact study on the proposal.

"It appears to me that the long-term health of this community is being weighed against the cost of an EIS," she said. "I don't like that."

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