It might seem obvious that having an entire town heavily contaminated with asbestos and hundreds of residents sickened by asbestos-related illnesses would constitute a public health emergency. Getting the federal government – specifically, the EPA – to actually declare a public health emergency in Libby, Montana took years of effort, though. Yesterday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finally announced that a public health emergency exists at the Libby asbestos site, and the declaration will allow it to get more resources for cleanup and healthcare.
Andrew Schneider (who’s now blogging at Cold Truth – update your bookmarks and RSS feeds!) wrote last month about the need for this declaration:
However, [Senator Max Baucus] says that major help may be on the way as he believes he can get a Public Health Emergency declared for Libby.
Battles had been fought throughout the Bush Administration, by OMB and EPA for years over those three little words.
Paul Peronard, Chris Weis and Aubrey Miller – the trio of EPA emergency response and public health specialists who were the first to arrive in Libby a decade ago – had their careers threatened repeatedly because they saw the need to declare the emergency.
They fought for the designation because it would permit EPA to do the complex cleanup the unique tremolite asbestos demanded, the town needed and would make the government responsible for ensuring the delivery of adequate health care.
The Bush Administration fought the effort because it was trying to force an industry-sponsored asbestos litigation reform act through Congress and wanted no attention brought to the devastation asbestos could impart.
The Democratic lawmaker lambasted the decision to not declare a public health emergency at the time, calling it an “outrage.”
Baucus said a public health emergency would authorize cleanup work in homes and other structures as well as require the federal government to provide screenings and health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related disease.
This is the first time that a public health emergency has been declared under the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is also known as Superfund.
It’s not until the last paragraph of the EPA announcement that we get a brief mention of W.R. Grace, the company that continued running the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine for decades after the harms of asbestos were widely known. Last year, the company agreed to pay the government $250 million for cleanup costs, even though the eventual tab was likely to be closer to double that amount.
It’s much harder to put a figure on the human toll of this public health disaster. In his excellent Seattle Post-Intelligencer series on Libby and in his book, An Air That Kills, Andrew Schneider chronicles the struggles of Libby residents, many of whom spend the last months or years of their too-short lives tethered to oxygen tanks and unable to do simple household chores. Former mine workers also struggle with feelings of guilt, knowing that the asbestos fibers they brought home in their clothes probably sickened their family members.
EPA’s declaration of a public health emergency in Libby doesn’t address the terrible loss of life the town has already suffered, but we can hope that it will ensure proper medical care for those who get sick and prevent further exposures to asbestos.