In November 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the news that 192 people had died and another 375 had been sickened by exposure to asbestos from WR Grace & Company’s Libby vermiculite mine, which closed in 1990. The ill effects were not limited to miners, but struck down many who had never even been to the mine. The newspaper posited that Grace executives, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies knew the dangers of the mine, but did nothing to stop exposure. The EPA began its cleanup of Libby almost immediately afterward.
Dr. Gerry Henningsen, Gordon Sullivan, Abe Troyer and Clinton Maynard say the worst thing anyone could possibly say about the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of Libby: That after six years of abatement, at a cost of $110 million, and with Montana’s one-time shot at an expedited Superfund cleanup spent, exposure to asbestos, which has now killed approximately 300 and sickened 2,000 in Libby, continues.
Furthermore, they say the EPA has intentionally misled Libby residents about the potential danger of that ongoing exposure and enacted unscientific cleanup policies that will lead to continued exposure and a huge financial burden for Libby and Montana.
The men say their claims are supported by a report, created by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), that has been buried.
They say the report was written by OIG investigator Cory Rumple in early May, after he had interviewed Henningsen, Sullivan, Troyer and Maynard about their complaints with the EPA cleanup, and then corroborated those complaints through his investigation.
The Independent submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the OIG on May 2, complete with a number identifying Rumple’s report (2006-8004), and on June 30 received a particularly evasive answer:
“With respect to the information requested, this office can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any documents responsive to your request. An official acknowledgement from this government entity could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns’ office had also been told of the report’s existence by Gordon Sullivan and, after requesting a copy and receiving a similar answer, Burns has demanded the OIG come clean about the report and provide a timeline as to when it will be released to the people of Libby.
Whether the report ultimately sees the light of day or not, Henningsen, Sullivan, Troyer and Maynard say they know what it is likely to contain. The men say they learned of the report’s findings in an April 21 conference call with Rumple, who outlined his report’s contents. While he told them it would speak to their concerns over the cleanup, he also assured them it would not affect the current federal case against Grace’s former executives that seeks to hold them accountable for what happened in Libby. Finally, he told the four men that he expected the OIG to try and bury the report. Rumple declined to speak to the Independent on the record.
Frustrated that efforts by the Independent, Sen. Burns, and themselves to obtain a copy of Rumple’s report had been rebuffed, the four men revealed details of their complaints about the EPA, and Rumple’s description of his report’s contents, to the Independent in a July 12 meeting at Flathead Valley Community College’s Libby branch.
An uncalculated risk
The four men Rumple interviewed about problems with the EPA cleanup, and to whom he ultimately revealed the results of his investigation, have strong connections to the EPA’s work in Libby.
Lifetime Libby resident Clinton Maynard is a former construction worker who had dreams of entering the jewelry business in 1999, when the asbestos contamination of Libby was revealed, and put his life on hold in order to devote himself to helping rehabilitate his town. In 2000, while scouring federal regulations pertaining to Superfund sites, he discovered the “silver bullet” provision, a clause that allows each state to cut through government red tape and start one cleanup immediately, no questions asked. He found out that Montana was one of seven states that had not yet used its silver bullet. He then started a letter-writing campaign asking then-Gov. Judy Martz to fire it for Libby, which she ultimately did. Since 2000, Maynard has been a member of Libby’s Community Advisory Group (CAG), which serves as liaison between the community and the EPA on cleanup issues.
Abe Troyer moved to Libby in 1999, just before Seattle Post-Intelligencer stories by Andrew Schneider began to reveal the town’s asbestos problem.
“I didn’t think too much of it at first,” Troyer says. But as he learned more, he wanted to get involved. In August 2001, Troyer began work for Burlingame, Calif.-based Environmental Chemical Corporation, removing asbestos contamination from former industrial sites. Over the next four years, he continued working on various aspects of the cleanup, eventually removing contamination from Libby homes. He also became a member of Libby’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) in 2004. TAG works with the community and the EPA on technical aspects of the cleanup.
Gordon Sullivan came to Libby from Helena in 1996. Before that, he had worked at the Anaconda Mining Company for 10 years, ending that career with the company’s Montana Mining Division, where he did geological research and worked on environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. Later, he spent nine years working in administration at the St. James Healthcare hospital in Butte, at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls and at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital in Libby. In 2003, he was hired as technical adviser to TAG. In that position, Sullivan was paid with an EPA grant to study EPA reports and present his findings to TAG in layman’s terms, relaying citizen concerns back to the EPA. He quit that position in May 2005 out of disgust with the EPA’s handling of the cleanup.
Of the four people that Rumple spoke to, Dr. Gerry Henningsen is probably the most damaging critic of the EPA’s Libby cleanup. Henningsen worked as a senior EPA toxicologist for 12 years, helping to assess the risk that 12 different Superfund sites nationwide posed to humans and the environment. He was hired to replace Sullivan as TAG adviser in August 2005 and officially began work in January. He currently resides in Evansville, Ind., and flies into Libby for one week each month to perform his duties as TAG adviser.
Henningsen believes that of all the Superfund sites in United States history, Libby is by far the worst. He notes that other sites, at most, have two or three deaths directly attributable to local contamination.
Nonetheless, Henningsen says that before he had even been hired as technical adviser, when he was doing background research on Libby last fall, he saw problems with the way the EPA was going about its cleanup. Most notably, Henningsen saw that the EPA had never established what risks amphibole asbestos, a particular type of asbestos most commonly found in Libby, presented to the public.
Risk, Henningsen says, is determined by multiplying exposure by toxicity.
The EPA, he says, has never done tests to determine how toxic amphibole asbestos is.
There are estimates that it is 10 to several hundred times more dangerous than other forms of asbestos that have been studied, but there are no conclusive scientific studies to back up those theories.
Henningsen also says that it remains unknown—in a town where asbestos-containing vermiculite was given away to residents and tilled into gardens, spread on lawns, poured behind walls and into attics as insulation and mixed into the running surface on the high school track—how much asbestos people are still being exposed to, and what the remaining sources of that exposure might be.
In order to determine current asbestos exposure in Libby, Henningsen says extensive testing over a period of time and in various locations—churches, schools, offices, yards, and homes, for instance—is needed. It hasn’t been done.
Worst risk management ever
Troyer, Sullivan, Maynard and Henningsen acknowledge that they do not know what the current risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease in Libby is, but they say the EPA has actively tried to convince the public that it’s minimal.
As evidence of this claim, they point to two documents created by the EPA. One, a brochure entitled “Living with Vermiculite,” was mailed to every home in Libby in 2003; another, a letter, was mailed out in spring of 2005 to 600 people whose property had been cleaned by the EPA.
“Living with Vermiculite” purports to advise Libby residents on handling vermiculite and the asbestos it contains, telling them they can vacuum or wipe up small amounts of it. It also contains several claims about the danger of the asbestos remaining in Libby, using language that leaves the EPA plenty of wiggle room, including: “Even though contacting or working near vermiculite or other asbestos-containing materials can release asbestos fibers into the air, if such exposures are infrequent or for short durations, they will not likely significantly increase your risk of health effects.”
“It’s a dangerous lie,” Maynard says, noting that someday, when the science on Libby’s asbestos comes in, current notions created by the EPA may need to be dispelled.
Maynard had specifically asked that the brochure be retracted several times, and discussed his concerns with OIG investigator Cory Rumple. During his phone call, Rumple told Maynard, “Clinton, you’ll be glad to know that ‘Living with Vermiculite’ was referred to as unconscionable,” by the scientists Rumple asked to review it.
Henningsen unleashes some of his harshest criticisms of the EPA in his critique of the letter sent by the EPA to Libby residents whose homes it had cleaned. He took one of the letters, which was sent to Libby residents Les and Norita Skramstad, and scanned it into a PDF file. He then highlighted certain passages and typed his criticisms of them in the margins.
He prefaces his critique by writing that he has observed “a disturbing and harmful pattern by some at EPA…who are responsible for the WORST risk management work in the Superfund Program that I have ever witnessed during my career.”
He then takes the letter apart piece by piece. In one of his more damning comments, he points to a line in the letter that reads: “Very low, often immeasurable levels of Libby asbestos remain in soil, indoor dust, fabrics, upholstery, and carpets. Current EPA risk assessments suggest that these circumstances do not pose a significant health risk.”
In response to this passage Henningsen writes, “This is another totally PREMATURE and UNFOUNDED FANTASY that the EPA author is attempting to deceitfully use to minimize further health risk concerns by the public. This is a very HARMFUL, unethical, irresponsible and immoral act which knowingly SACRIFICES and potentially ENDANGERS the lives and health plus welfare of Libby residents.”
In addition to disseminating unscientific information on a toxic substance, the four men say, the EPA, without knowing what sort of ongoing risks Libby faces, made policy decisions on the cleanup, again, without the benefit of science.
For instance, they say, the EPA determined that yards did not need to be cleaned unless the soil was 1 percent or more asbestos.
The agency also decided that asbestos could be contained behind walls in homes where it had been used as insulation, and simply vacuumed up by homeowners when it leaked.
According to Abe Troyer, the EPA also allowed vermiculite to remain along fences, in driveways, and around the root systems of trees and perennial plants that had grown into vermiculite-containing soil. Troyer didn’t like it when he saw the EPA change its policy of completely removing asbestos from homes and yards to partial containment in 2003.
“As a worker, what I observed left me troubled at times,” Troyer says.
The EPA, Sullivan, Henningsen, Maynard and Troyer say, intentionally misled Libby residents about their risk of exposure and created unscientific cleanup procedures in order to hasten to the finish line
Typically, Henningsen says, Superfund cleanups go through two phases before they’re considered complete: the emergency response phase and the remedial action phase.
While in emergency response mode, the EPA’s obligation is to remove what Henningsen calls “hot spots,” or areas of high contamination. This, he says, the agency has mostly accomplished.
The remedial phase of a Superfund cleanup can, and often does, run concurrently with the emergency phase. To begin the remedial phase, Henningsen says, risk is established through scientific study. Once that is done, it can be determined how clean a site must be to be safe. The EPA then issues a Record of Decision (ROD), a contract specifying exactly what the agency will do to finish the cleanup.
Henningsen says when he first began working as the Libby technical adviser, the EPA was preparing to write its ROD by the end of 2006 and leave Libby soon afterward.
The agency wanted to leave, Henningsen says, having only cleaned the town under emergency response mode, and having never moved into the remedial phase.
“They were portraying falsely that their [emergency response] activities had somehow magically become the final remedial cleanup,” Henningsen says. “If they had succeeded in getting that ROD through, they were going to conclude that what they had already done was adequate.”
After the ROD is in place and the EPA has completed the cleanup mandated by the ROD, Henningsen says, the EPA leaves the site.
“Once they finalize the ROD they’re done, and you’ll play hell to ever get them back in town again,” says Henningsen. “Their legal obligation is over.”
And after the EPA leaves, Henningsen says, Libby and the state of Montana will likely find themselves responsible for future cleanup and health care costs in Libby.
Since the OIG began investigating the cleanup, Henningsen says, the EPA has postponed writing the ROD.
But even if it turns out that current exposure levels in Libby are acceptable, Troyer points out that homes where asbestos has been contained will eventually fall apart, be demolished or burned, yards and gardens will be dug up, trees will fall, and asbestos will come to the surface again. The cost of cleaning these potential messes, the four men say, would likely fall to Libby or the state.
And asbestos cleanup isn’t cheap. The EPA’s information office in Libby estimates that about $17 million per year is currently spent on Libby cleanup costs.
“There’s a fair chance that [Libby] could become a burden for the state,” especially, Henningsen says, “if they have to pick up the health care for those people.”
Andrew Schneider and David McCumber’s epic work on Libby and its asbestos disaster, An Air That Kills, gives a comprehensive history of asbestos and its use by mankind. Asbestos was used by ancient Romans and Greeks who weaved it into a strong, fireproof fabric. Even then there was an awareness of the potential harm asbestos could cause to those who worked around it. Slaves, the reporters write, wore “respirators” made from a thin membrane taken from goat or lamb bladders to protect themselves. The authors go on to document numerous scientific studies, starting in the late 1800s, showing asbestos’s risks. They also cite various letters and discussions that show companies mining and processing asbestos were aware of the risks these reports revealed. But that information never seemed to work its way down to the people who handled asbestos. This pattern was repeated in 1982 and 1985, when the EPA wrote reports acknowledging asbestos exposure in Libby, but failed to warn workers there. Not until 1999, when Schneider and other journalists began writing stories describing what had happened to the people in Libby, did the EPA step in.
“We are there again today,” Gordon Sullivan says of the buried OIG report, frustration straining his voice. “We have a significant document that deals with public health and safety, and we’re now at the same juncture we were at with [the 1982 and 1985 reports].”
“Why?” is the obvious question.
Henningsen believes bureaucratic bungling was the ultimate cause of the botched cleanup, but Sullivan, Troyer and Maynard see the EPA’s decisions more cynically. They say the EPA and companies that mined and processed materials containing amphibole asbestos don’t want to study amphibole asbestos, for fear of learning how toxic it may really be.
The EPA’s negligence over the years, Troyer, Sullivan and Maynard say, is a result of money to be made by powerful corporations as long as asbestos products kept selling, and money to be lost in lawsuits by the millions of people potentially exposed to dangerous amounts of the fiber. Indeed, information the reporters gathered shows that various corporate executives hid the risk of asbestos in order to protect profits.
So far, more than 70 U.S. companies have declared bankruptcy in the face of asbestos-related lawsuits, and the federal government has spent hundreds of millions cleaning up various sites contaminated by asbestos.
Troyer, Sullivan and Maynard also think that the EPA may have been trying to shave its own costs, pointing out that the agency began changing its policies on cleaning up asbestos in Libby, moving from complete removal to partial containment, in 2003. Before 2003, it was costing the EPA about $200,000 to clean each asbestos-contaminated home in Libby. That was when they were completely removing contamination from each house. In 2003, the EPA decided it was okay to leave contamination contained behind walls and in the attics of homes, and the price suddenly dropped to $25,000-$30,000 per home.
In the end, the three men say, it was money, not science, that drove decisions on the EPA cleanup of Libby. But Troyer, Sullivan and Maynard allow that it’s possible to argue that those cost savings came as a result of the EPA becoming more efficient over time, and because the worst homes were cleaned first.
Likewise, while conspiracy theories about the EPA and other governmental agencies working with asbestos companies may seem reasonable, given the unsettling history of asbestos dangers being hidden from the public, they are far from proven.
A U.S. General Accounting Office study of the EPA’s failure in Libby concluded that the agency “misjudged the extent of the contamination in Libby,” and says, “we did not find any evidence that EPA officials were pressured to shift the agency’s focus.”
In the end, it seems the only available evidence supports Henningsen’s theory of bureaucratic ineptitude.
Maynard, Sullivan, Henningsen and Troyer aren’t the only ones critical of the EPA’s work.
On Dec. 20, 2001, then-Gov. Judy Martz visited the Libby High School with some unexpected and much-needed good news. In the weeks before her visit, she had been the subject of public derision in Libby for not firing the state’s only Superfund silver bullet.
That night, Martz fired the silver bullet and became Libby’s hero.
During her speech, Martz said she’d reached her decision in part because the EPA had made specific promises regarding the cleanup, including that it would take just two years, followed by one year of testing to ensure its effectiveness.
“As you know,” she told the audience, “I have struggled deeply with whether or not to use the silver bullet in Libby…While I am confident that cleanup would progress with a normal Superfund listing process, the risk of that delay is unacceptable to you, and it is also unacceptable to me.”
In a recent interview with the Independent, Martz said that her dealings with the EPA led her to believe that Libby would be a nearly asbestos-free town after those three years had passed.
Six years later, it’s clear that the promised timeline didn’t hold, and it’s clear to Martz that EPA promises about the quality of cleanup Libby would receive haven’t held either.
“They have not kept their word on Libby,” Martz told the Independent. “The EPA clearly has not done what they said they would do.”
Martz isn’t sold on the idea that learning the true risk of amphibole asbestos is what Libby needs. She points out that people like former governor and Libby native Marc Racicot grew up in the same asbestos-contaminated environment as their neighbors, and never got sick.
Because of the apparently variable way in which exposure affects people, she asks, “How can we point to what is a safe level in good conscience?”
“I think no exposure is the best thing,” she concludes.
Martz wasn’t afraid to say what is the possibly the second-worst thing someone could say about Libby, that there remains the possibility that the town will have to be evacuated permanently.
“Maybe the problem is so big that it can’t be cleaned up,” she told the Independent. “You have to face that possibility.”
A moral duty
On the other hand, Martz says, “there’s always hope” that the EPA’s cleanup will ultimately benefit Libby.
Troyer, Maynard, Henningsen and Sullivan believe that Cory Rumple’s OIG report is the key to turning the cleanup around.
During their July meeting with the Independent, they talk about the report’s importance.
They all stress that they had brought their complaints to the EPA many times.
“This is nothing new to those guys,” Maynard says.
“We gave them many, many chances before this OIG investigation even started,” Henningsen says. “They didn’t care.”
Max Dodson is the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Region 8, which includes Montana, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Dodson acknowledges the existence of the report, and says Cory Rumple interviewed him for it.
He declined to respond to complaints by Henningsen, Troyer, Sullivan and Maynard, saying, “Until I have a copy of the report, I really can’t respond to it.”
Since the OIG investigation has taken place, Henningsen, Troyer, Sullivan and Maynard concede they’ve seen some sudden improvements in the EPA’s work.
“I’ve never seen so many toxicologists involved with the process,” says Sullivan. Toxicologists, he says, can provide the scientific knowledge needed to begin analyzing health risks in Libby.
But they say that the EPA is only part way to turning the cleanup around, and believe the best thing that could happen now is for the report to be released.
“This is a report that goes to the issues of public health and safety,” Sullivan says.
“The fact is that this has the potential of stopping additional exposures in our community,” Sullivan continues, “and so we have a moral duty to have the report come to light.”
“That’s our main interest,” Henningsen says. “It’s moral, ethical and absolutely required to try and get that out, to ultimately help the cleanup.”