Image: Mine near Libby
Lincoln County District Court via AP
Closed since 1990, this mine near Libby, Mont., had produced vermiculite ore that turned out to be contaminated with asbestos. The EPA on Wednesday declared a public health emergency around the entire area.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/17/2009 9:29:53 PM ET 2009-06-18T01:29:53

The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time has declared a public health emergency in a contaminated community, targeting a Montana town Wednesday for immediate federal attention and up to $130 million more for cleanup and medical care costs.

The declaration by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson involving Libby, Mont., will not result in an evacuation of its 2,600 residents, but will require an extensive cleanup and better health protections for residents with asbestos-related illnesses.

Jackson called Libby a "tragic public health situation" that has not received the recognition it deserves from the federal government for far too long.

Asbestos contamination from a now-closed vermiculite operations near Libby has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people and illnesses of thousands more. Vermiculite is used to make insulation material but the ore found in Libby was eventually found to be contaminated with a toxic form of naturally-occurring asbestos.

Miners carried vermiculite dust home on their clothes, vermiculite once covered school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens.

Gayla Benefield of Libby, who suffers health effects from asbestos exposure and lost both parents to asbestos-related lung diseases, called the declaration a "a giant step forward" for improved medical care and clean up of the town.

"Right now the amount of money is relatively minimal, but overall the biggest thing is that it opens the door for future money to be available for medical care, research," she said.

Superfund and court cases
The operations produced 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. before they were closed in 1990 by owner W.R. Grace. Federal cleanup began in 2000 and the area was declared a Superfund priority site in 2002.

W.R. Grace last year settled a lawsuit over the cleanup, agreeing to pay the U.S. government $250 million. The EPA has estimated the total cleanup and medical care cost could reach $350 million.

Image: Vermiculite ore
EPA
Libby, Mont., is rich in vermiculite ore like these samples, but the mineral exposed many residents to abestos-related disease.
Last month, a jury acquitted three former W.R. Grace executives of knowingly allowing residents to be exposed to asbestos-related disease.

Jackson said the public health emergency declaration was the first time the EPA has made such a determination under authority of the 1980 Superfund law that requires the clean up of contaminated sites.

Investigations performed by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry have found that occurrences of asbestosis, a lung condition, near Libby are staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979 to 1998, the EPA said in a press release.

"While EPA’s cleanup efforts have greatly reduced exposure, actual and potential releases of amphibole asbestos remain a significant threat to public health in that area," it added.

$6 million medical grant
The EPA is working with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is making available a $6 million grant to provide asbestos-related medical care to Libby and residents of Troy, another Montana town.

"Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation on the ground, we will continue to move aggressively on the cleanup efforts and protect the health of the people," Jackson said. "We're here to help create a long and prosperous future for this town."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the emergency declaration a great day for Libby, which he said "had to wait year after year as the last administration failed to determine that a public health emergency exists."

"Today is the day that after years of work we were able to succeed in getting this done," Baucus said. "We will continue to push until Libby has a clean bill of health."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the declaration long-overdue. "We still have a long way to do right by the folks in Libby. Working together with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, we're making very good progress," Tester said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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