Gordon Sullivan finally felt some hope of vindication for his criticisms of the Environmental Protection Agency’s work cleaning up the asbestos-contaminated town of Libby when a federal investigator interviewed him about two weeks ago.
Sullivan quit his job as Libby’s technical advisor last year over his concerns about the EPA’s cleanup of cancer-causing tremolite asbestos, rained upon the town by the W.R. Grace Corporation’s nearby vermiculite mine.
As technical advisor, Sullivan was paid to study EPA reports and present his findings to Libby’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which is funded with federal Superfund money to make the EPA aware of the community’s technical issues.
“I saw the process being overwhelmed by the EPA,” Sullivan says of his decision to quit. He thought that by working from the outside, he’d find other ways of helping with the cleanup. As it turns out, other ways found him.
Should the investigation justify his concern that the EPA has flubbed its Libby cleanup, Sullivan says, eventually “Libby will be a cleaner, healthier place.”
The EPA, on the other hand, could find its efforts tainted.
The investigation, according to Sullivan and other community members, is being carried out by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a branch of the agency that conducts internal audits and investigations.
John Manibusan, a spokesman for the OIG, says the office performs two types of investigations, aimed respectively at efficiency and criminal concerns. Manibusan says that the OIG is not engaged in an efficiency investigation in Libby, and that the OIG’s policy on criminal investigations is to neither confirm nor deny their existence.
Sullivan says he was interviewed by an investigator named Cory Rumple who, when contacted by the Independent, declined to comment on whether or not he is taking part in an investigation. Rumple did confirm his role as a criminal investigator for the OIG. Peggy Churchill, project manager of the Libby cleanup, confirmed the existence of an investigation, and Dr. Gerry Henningsen, technical advisor to TAG since Sullivan quit, acknowledged meeting with an investigator in March, and said “many others” have been interviewed as well.
Henningsen says he and the investigator discussed “concerns about various parts of the cleanup,” although the investigator declined to specify those concerns.
Sullivan says he was also asked to explain his concerns about the cleanup, of which he has many, ranging from the technical to the personal.
Sullivan’s personal issue is that he and his wife Kathy’s home, like approximately 2,500 other homes in Libby, was insulated with asbestos from W.R. Grace’s mine. The EPA has remediated the Sullivans’ home, and contained hard-to-reach asbestos behind its walls. But on a sunny Friday afternoon, Gordon stands at one corner of the log home, looking for glints of sunlight in spider webs. From the webs he pulls shiny bits of what he says is vermiculite, the asbestos-containing mineral from W.R. Grace’s mine, that he says have fallen through the walls of his home. Above the fallen vermiculite he points to a spot where cardboard was apparently used to hold it inside the walls.
The EPA has scrubbed about 550 homes in Libby since cleanup began in 2002. Sullivan says his isn’t the only home leaking vermiculite.
His concerns about the way local homes were remediated goes to the heart of his problems with the cleanup.
In 2002, when Sullivan was first hired as TAG’s technical advisor, he says the plan was to completely remove asbestos from the town. That initial plan, Sullivan says, was steadily eroded by the EPA, from removal to containment to minimization of asbestos release. Now, he says, “It’s gone from minimizing release to ‘You clean it up.’” That comment refers to the EPA’s provision of HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaners to Libby residents so they can suck up any asbestos dust that escapes containment.
Sullivan’s other major problem with the cleanup is more technical. Before the cleanup even began, he says, the EPA should have done a risk assessment, a baseline study to determine how dangerous a toxin is, and how people might be exposed to it. Without such a baseline study, Sullivan says, it is impossible for the EPA to really know how safe anything in Libby actually is. It could turn out that it’s safe to leave some asbestos in people’s homes, and have them clean up spillage with vacuum cleaners. Alternately, that could turn out to be a deadly mistake. The problem, he says, is that nobody knows.
Sullivan says that while he served as technical advisor, he tried repeatedly to get these concerns dealt with by the EPA, with no success, which eventually led to his resignation as technical advisor.
Project manager Peggy Churchill says she’s unable to comment on Sullivan’s concerns, as they are part of an ongoing investigation.
At this time, it remains unclear what criminal charges might eventually arise from the investigation. What seems evident to Dr. Henningsen, Sullivan’s successor as technical advisor, is that the investigation itself will ultimately be good for Libby, no matter what investigators find.
“Everyone will benefit from a solid, clean, accusation-free process,” he says. “This should be seen as a chance to alleviate concerns.”