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LIBBY - After 18 months of finding and cleaning up toxic asbestos in the area, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are trying to ease the people of Libby into the likelihood that their entire town will be declared a Superfund site.

It's a designation that would guarantee federal funds and long-term cleanup of the former Zonolite mine near Libby, plus the contaminated areas associated with it and the affected parts of town. But it's also one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable about the accompanying stigma and fret over the notion that neither businesses nor tourists want to invest in a place that's polluted enough to make the Superfund list.

"I think it's a legitimate thing to be worried about," said Paul Peronard, the EPA's on-site coordinator in Libby. "You do see, especially when sites are first listed, an impact on economic activity and property values. But I think that is fairly short-term."

And, Peronard and others say, the damage to Libby's reputation is already done. Local residents say things have gotten so bad that there's a sense from outsiders that they could be exposed to toxic asbestos simply by driving from Kalispell to Spokane on U.S. Highway 2 and passing through Libby. In the past year and a half, news stories have linked dozens of deaths and illnesses to asbestos poisoning from the former W.R. Grace and Co. Zonolite mine just outside town.

"I'm not sure the tarnish could get worse," said Peronard.

Still, Peronard said, "What you don't want to do is saddle the community and the state with something they don't really want."

Though the mine has been shut down for a decade, EPA officials continue to find new places in town, like schoolyards, that have been contaminated with tailings from the old vermiculite mine. That fact, along with the dozens of new people being diagnosed each month with asbestosis, has kept bad news about Libby in the spotlight.

Marion Applegate, whose husband, Bud, just found out he's sick from asbestos exposure, said it's almost silly to debate whether Libby and its surroundings should make the Superfund list.

"I think lives are more important than any stigma on our town," said Applegate.

Connie Leckrone, whose husband, Dean, was recently diagnosed with asbestos-related respiratory problems, agreed.

"There's already a stigma on this town," she said "We want our town cleaned up, period."

But Alan Stringer, the W.R. Grace and Co. representative in Libby, said he doesn't believe a Superfund listing would be the best thing for the community. He said the cleanup can continue without attaching to Libby the label of Superfund site.

"There would be a lot more downs than ups," said Stringer.

Throughout the decision-making process, Stringer said, "Hopefully some rational thinking and good analysis will be done."

Adding Libby to the nation's Superfund list is something that could happen as early as next spring, said Peronard.

"What we do now is put the idea out there and float it for public discussion," Peronard explained recently.

Peronard said preliminary EPA assessments of the damage and cleanup needs at the former W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine and the contamination throughout Libby show the area would qualify for Superfund designation. He said he believes the most logical way to apply Superfund designation to Libby would be to set up two separate sites - one in the area associated with Grace's former vermiculite processing plant and another encompassing the whole town.

That way, he explained, the town could be cleaned up quickly and taken off the list first. Though there are several things that need to be cleaned up within the town itself, that work wouldn't take as much time as the more complex and heavily contaminated spots.

In Lincoln County, an estimated 1,800 homes, including 600 in Libby, have Zonolite insulation that needs to be removed and replaced, Peronard said. In addition, gardens throughout Libby are rife with vermiculite. The mineral was mined for use in insulation and potting soils.

Placing all of Libby, including the processing plant, under one Superfund tag would make the city wait until the more complex work was completed.

With the contaminated material turning up everywhere, there's been some talk in Libby that the entire town might have to be relocated. Peronard said the idea has come up, but moving Libby, as was done in Love Canal, N.Y., is not the best option.

"I think you're better off dealing with the root problem," he said.

So the EPA will focus on the Superfund listing process now. While a citizen advisory group in Libby draws up its own list of pros and cons about the designation, EPA officials will begin discussions with the Martz administration and the state Department of Environmental Quality.

When there's some agreement on moving forward with Superfund designations, Peronard said, the EPA will draw up a written proposal. That document is open for public scrutiny for six weeks before any final decisions come out of the federal level.

In his view, Peronard said, Superfund status for the contaminated places in Libby is the most logical way to proceed. If the EPA continues cleaning up the area they way it is now, Libby could get bumped for a higher-priority project.

Under the Superfund law, however, getting on the list means that things will be taken care of if funding falls short or other projects take away attention.

"It guarantees that eventually there will be closure on this," Peronard.

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