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Asbestos-Containing Vermiculite found in Libby Park

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July 10, 2008

Asbestos-Containing Vermiculite found in Libby Park

Libby, Montana – July 9, 2008 – The town of Libby, Montana has been in the process of cleaning up its wide-scale asbestos contamination for nearly a decade, but it often seems the town’s problems are only getting worse.

Libby became known as one of the most contaminated towns in America due to the presence of the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, which was known to be contaminated with asbestos several decades before the mine was closed. The entire town has been contaminated with the toxic substance, and thousands of Libby residents have developed deadly asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma. Even those who never worked at the vermiculite mine have become sick and many have died.

Last week, a strip of vermiculite chunks around 50 yards long was discovered in a Libby park. The park, however, has been cleaned of vermiculite contaminants at least three times already.

Mike Cirian of the Environmental Protection Agency states, “I’m pretty sure it’s been there less than a couple of weeks. This isn’t something you miss. These are large flake, silver-dollar-sized chunks of vermiculite.”

The looming question is, if the park has been cleaned several times, how did the vermiculite appear within the last two weeks?

Libby Mayor Tony Berget says, “If—and the emphasis is on the word ‘if’—somebody is purposely dumping contaminated vermiculite, it’s a really serious situation of endangering the public.”

Before 1978, 100% of the asbestos at the Libby mine was considered tremolite asbestos, which is one of the six asbestiform minerals that are regulated (not banned) by the United States. Technological advancements in mineralogy improved the scientific classification of asbestos, and after 1978, the accepted percentage of tremolite asbestos plunged from 100% to only 15%.

One again, mineralogical innovation redefined asbestos classifications and nomenclature. After 1997, only 6% of Libby’s asbestos was recognized as tremolite. If only 6% of the asbestos is tremolite, then what other toxic minerals have contaminated the town of Libby?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the minerals once believed to be tremolite are actually winchite and richterite, recognized asbestiform minerals that fall outside the six forms regulated by the government. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the Libby mine consist of approximately 84% winchite, 11% richterite, and 6% tremolite.

Therefore, the most of asbestos contamination at Libby is unregulated and does not fall under the regulations of the Clean Air Act. Considering more than 200 Libby residents have died from asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer, and more than 1,000 have been diagnosed with asbestos-induced lung ailments, it is clear that unregulated forms of asbestos are just as dangerous as the six forms recognized by the U.S. government.

Police Chief Clay Coker says Libby police have launched an investigation into the dumping of the toxic substance. However, there are no known suspects and no witnesses, which leaves little to investigate.

The vermiculite chunks were found in a fairly high-traffic area near the parking lot of Riverfront Memorial Park. A pavilion project is scheduled to begin there shortly.

Cirian says the vermiculite chunks are far to large to have worked themselves up out of the ground, and that it is not possible for the chunks to have fallen off trucks being used in the ongoing cleanup efforts taking place in Libby.

The big problem with the discovery is that fragments of the chunks may have been tracked around the parking lot by vehicles moving in and out. That means a 12,000-square-foot area must be cleaned—yet again—for vermiculite contamination.

Cirian states, “The repercussions are astounding. It costs thousands of dollars to clean that out, which could be going toward a house instead.”

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