The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed suit against W.R. Grace & Co. and Kootenai Development Co. (KDC), seeking immediate access to property near Libby, Mont., in order to clean up asbestos contamination.
In a complaint filed in federal court in Missoula, Mont., DOJ, on behalf of EPA, asked the court to order the companies to allow full access to a former vermiculite mine and portions of a former vermiculite processing plant.
The properties were once operated by Grace and are now owned by KDC, which is controlled by Grace.
On July 19, EPA asked Grace and KDC to allow it unconditional access to the two areas, but the companies refused.
The agency wants to enter the processing plant area in order to remove asbestos-contaminated soil. It also wants access to the former mine to carry out clean up activities and dispose of asbestos-contaminated soil that is being removed from the area around the screening plant.
Initially, KDC told EPA that it would have access to the contaminated property to carry out its investigation and clean up.
But on July 18, Grace told EPA that it had acquired ownership of KDC''s stock and, in the same communication, revoked any agreements between KDC and EPA concerning access to the sites.
The property became contaminated with asbestos over a 70-year period as vermiculite, which is used in home insulation and other products, was mined from the mountainous area and processed in and around Libby. The vermiculite ore was commingled with asbestos.
Mining began at the site in about 1919 and continued until 1990, when Grace shut down the mine.
Grace owned the property from 1963 until the early 1990s, when it sold the mine and two processing plants to KDC and other entities.
In November 1999, EPA and its contractors conducted numerous investigations into asbestos contamination at several locations within the site, identifying soil at the screening plant with asbestos concentrations as high as 12 percent by weight.
An initial investigation of the former mine showed high concentrations of asbestos in the tailing pile and tailing pond.
Asbestos, a recognized human carcinogen, is known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a lethal tumor of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities.
Soil containing asbestos may pose a risk to the health and safety of people residing in contaminated areas and in surrounding communities, said EPA.
Grace did allow EPA access to the properties for investigative purposes only, two weeks ago.
Access to the mine site for investigation was granted only after EPA informed Grace that it was filing an application for a warrant, said Paul Peronard, EPA on-scene coordinator.
"As soon as we told them that, they signed our access agreement unconditionally," said Peronard.
Grace had little basis to deny access for an investigation, Peronard said.
But access standards for cleanup operations are higher, and EPA must show that hazardous materials are present and that they are a threat to public safety.
However, on Friday, the latest results were released from air monitoring and in-home testing during a three-day conference in Libby, Mont., to discuss asbestos and the government''s role there.
Peronard reported that he discovered trace amounts of asbestos in both air and dust samples taken from 119 homes in and around Libby and, under the government''s risk assessment program, there is no risk to the people who live in these homes.
The dispute over the clean up of the two properties will likely be resolved in court, Peronard commented.
For now, EPA is continuing to clean up residential areas around the processing plant that are not owned by KDC and Grace.
by Virginia Sutcliffe