The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew more than 15 years ago that asbestos fibers were killing people in the small Montana town of Libby but "dropped the ball," a newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted Christopher Weis, an EPA toxicologist, who told a conference on environmental journalism held by the University of Colorado Journalism School that EPA "is reeling in shock as to how this slipped through the cracks."
Weis said the agency''s headquarters was aware of the situation but never passed the information along to the regional office in Denver -- which is now heading up the EPA response in Libby.
Nearly 200 deaths related to asbestos exposure have been reported in the Libby area, where a mine produced thousands of tons of asbestos as a byproduct of vermiculite, which is used in insulation, as a gardening additive and other products.
According to the newspaper, Weis said that an EPA study at the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine in the mid-1980s showed death projections of "almost 100 percent" for miners there.
Last November, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the hazards in Libby in a series of stories. Those stories surprised EPA officials in Denver, said Weis, who was part of the federal response team in Libby.
Further investigation has shown that the initial tally of the death toll in the town of only 2,700 people may have been low, Weis said, because "asbestos-related death is notorious for inaccurate diagnosis."
The mine''s mill spewed as much as 5,000 tons of asbestos a day and other fibers apparently were brought home on the dusty clothing of workers.
EPA is sampling air, soil and other materials in Libby to find out just how extensive the contamination is.
Weis said EPA is working with 11 other federal agencies to make sure such oversights don''t happen again. They are working on communication plans to make sure that agencies share information, he said.
The EPA''s regional office in Denver did not return calls seeking comment.
by Virginia Sutcliffe