Last week's emergency declaration in Libby received "Breaking News" treatment from CNN, as if a wildfire was about to engulf the town. Of course, Libby's been engulfed in asbestos for decades, and declaring a public health emergency now is a little like flying in air tankers after the town's burned down.
As that CNN story reported, the EPA declaration—the first issued by the agency since the Superfund law was passed in 1980—means Libby will receive $131 million in cleanup and medical assistance. But what wasn't reported was that the EPA isn't actually providing any new money to the town. Of that $131 million, $125 million was tagged for Libby anyway. An EPA official, who requested anonymity, told the Independent that the money comes from W.R. Grace's $250 million settlement with the EPA last year.
No matter the source of the money, it may do little to address the underlying problem hindering proper cleanup of Libby: the lack of toxicity studies needed to establish safe and acceptable levels of Libby-amphibole asbestos. That was the problem Office of Inspector General Special Agent Cory Rumple detailed in his 2006 report (which the EPA buried until the Obama administration forced its release in April), and it remains the problem today.
"[The declaration] is good news for the community for clinical health," says Dr. Gerry Henningsen, former EPA senior toxicologist and technical advisor to the agency's Technical Advisory Group, "but the underlying problem is still there and won't go away until the EPA cleans the site to adequate health-protective levels, which they can't determine because they don't have the data."
The emergency declaration is definitely welcomed, even if it's about seven years late. The people of Libby deserve urgent attention. The $6 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—the balance of the $131 million—will pay the medical bills of residents suffering from asbestos-related disease. Plus, even if the EPA isn't receiving any additional funding now, the emergency declaration does give the agency more wiggle room to ask for it down the road.
Parts of the deal are encouraging, but we can't help but wonder if this breaking news will follow the same old story line in Libby: big promises, bigger disappointment. We're not sure air tankers can drop a big enough pile of money to make it right. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>