Yes, no, maybe…

An unenlightening chat with EPA’s Stephen Johnson

On Aug. 6, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen L. Johnson paid his second visit to Libby in two years to attend a U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works field hearing hosted by Montana Sen. Max Baucus.

His visit comes in the wake of a year in which an EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation determined that, despite expenditures of $110 million and seven years spent cleaning up asbestos contamination left in the town by W.R. Grace & Co.’s vermiculite mine, the EPA “cannot be sure that the Libby cleanup sufficiently reduces the risk that humans may become ill.” That’s because the EPA has never adequately studied the type of asbestos particular to Libby.

In a brief interview with Johnson before his visit to Libby, the Independent had hoped to clarify important questions surrounding the Libby cleanup and asbestos contamination. Instead we got a series on non-answers and obfuscations reminiscent of recent Senate hearings on attorney firings at the U.S. Justice Department.

For instance, the OIG’s findings bring up an obvious question: If the EPA cannot be sure that Libby is safe, how can it know if any place contaminated with Libby asbestos is safe?

Libby vermiculite was used to insulate as many as 35 million homes in the United States, was used to fireproof the World Trade Center buildings, was processed at hundreds of sites across the country, and has been found on some of the most popular beaches near Chicago.

“Wherever asbestos might be, whether it might potentially be in attic insulation or on old pipes or other kinds of structures, certainly our advice is to avoid disturbing [it] and avoid that exposure…” Johnson said. “With regard to other places, other sources, that continues to be our important message: Asbestos is something that you should not be dealing with, because it is harmful.”

But in Manhattan, a large amount of Libby asbestos was unforeseeably disturbed after two planes flew into the World Trade Center buildings. What we wanted to know is how the EPA could declare Manhattan safe—as the agency has declared—when it doesn’t even know if Libby is safe.

When the Independent asked Johnson how the EPA got to the point that the OIG had to tell the agency that, despite the time and money spent, it had no idea whether or not Libby was clean, Johnson answered:

“The OIG plays an important role of program evaluation across the agency, and program evaluation is something that, as administrator, I’m very supportive of, because all programs can always be evaluated, and my experience is there’s always opportunities to improve the program...”

In other words, the OIG report was just routine program maintenance. But Johnson’s answer doesn’t jibe with the cleanup’s recent history. For years, people like Gordon Sullivan, who served as a liaison between Libby and the EPA, have been asking the agency to do a proper study of Libby asbestos, so that they would have a baseline for determining the cleanup’s efficacy. It took an OIG investigation, a story in the Independent (see “A Dangerous Lie,” July 27, 2006) and requests by Sen. Max Baucus to get the EPA to acknowledge its own lack of science.

In fact, on Dec. 5, after the OIG report on the Libby cleanup was released, Sen. Baucus said in a press release: “It’s an outrage. Heads should roll at EPA. The people in Libby and the American taxpayers deserve better, much better.”

The Independent asked Johnson for a reaction to that quote, and got what seemed an attempt to make peace with Baucus, as well as a defense of the EPA’s work in Libby.

“Sen. Baucus has been a great leader and advocate for the citizens of Libby, and with regard to the work of the EPA, the EPA is the one who has gone in, and over the years focused attention on removing contamination and improving the situation,” Johnson said.

He went on to note that the EPA has overseen the removal of asbestos from 857 Libby properties. This number is, of course, rendered effectively meaningless by the OIG’s finding that the EPA had no way of knowing whether its work had made even one Libby property safe.

Furthermore, it appears Baucus never got the memo about the EPA chief’s appeasement.

The Missoulian quotes Baucus at the Aug. 6 field hearing saying, “Nothing got done at EPA until lots of pressure was put on…Until then, frankly, nothing was being done.”

Baucus also demanded the EPA release documents pursuant to its 2002 decision not to issue a public warning on the dangers of Zonolite Attic Insulation, which is made of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, and not to declare Libby a public health emergency, which would have hastened the arrival of cleanup crews and medical care. A 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article by Andrew Schneider states that the White House Office of Budget Management was directly involved in that decision.

Also, the Independent reported in a recent story (see “Libby Meets Manhattan,” Aug. 2, 2007) that W.R. Grace tried to use the EPA’s declaration that Manhattan was safe after the World Trade Center collapse to argue against the Zonolite warning.

Baucus, according to reports in the Missoulian and the Associated Press, said he would force the agency to hand over documents on the Zonolite and public health emergency decisions if the EPA would not do so voluntarily.

Baucus has already promised Libby, during an April field hearing, that he would get his hands on documents created by former OIG investigator Corey Rumple, who initially investigated problems with the Libby cleanup in early 2006. So far, those documents have not been made unavailable.

Those documents could go a long way toward explaining how the Libby cleanup got off track. And the paper trail may be Libby’s best chance at getting answers. Because Johnson doesn’t seem inclined to provide them.


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