A Cold Truth Special Report
SPOKANE, Wash. – It was a strange sight. Two people dressed head-to-toe in protective Tyvek and full-face respirators, carrying a stainless steel bowl and a dirt scoop as they weaved through tomato plants, ducked under heavy, cherry-laden branches and crawled around a collection of gigantic plastic yard toys.
Raymond Wu and Jennifer Crawford – the two quality assurance chemists sweltering in the protective gear – are from the Environmental Protection Agency. They are trying to determine if there is anything beneath the carefully mowed lawn that can sicken or kill the grandchildren or pets of the woman who owns the modest, but neat residence.
They collected 30 small samples of dirt, which will be analyzed to determine how much asbestos might have been deposited on the property over the years from the now-demolished W.R. Grace Vermiculite Northwest processing plant across the street. Corporate documents show that at least 43,045 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was shipped to the plant from the Grace mine in Libby, Mont.
The yard around this house was one of nine locations abutting the old plant site in Spokane that the EPA team from Seattle sampled this week.
I can’t get an official answer from EPA headquarters, but people in the agency’s Superfund division say that similar retesting is being done throughout the country. Or should be.
EPA emergency responders were ordered to Libby in November 1999, just two days after the now-deceased Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that hundreds had died and thousands were sickened from exposure to a particularly toxic type of asbestos called tremolite that contaminated the vermiculite ore.
This cleanup comes one month after the government, with much fanfare and hoopla, finally declared a long awaited Public Health Emergency for Libby and its people. Seven years earlier, the Bush White House thwarted EPA plans to do the same thing. Here’s a link to last month’s story.
Under the declaration, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, promised money for an extensive cleanup of the tremolite asbestos and medical care for those sickened.
The same tremolite contaminating this Spokane location could be found in hundreds of other Grace vermiculite processing plants across the country. Together they received tens of millions of tons of asbestos-contaminated ore between 1923 and 1993 from the vermiculite mine on Zonolite Mountain six miles outside Libby.
In 2001, EPA listed 266 Grace processing sites in 40 states where the Libby ore was exfoliated or popped into feather-weight pieces for use in insulation, fireproofing or lawn products. EPA headquarters, bowing to pressure from Congressional oversight committees, ordered that the processing plants and neighboring communities be evaluated for asbestos contamination.
But the quality of the site examinations varied dramatically depending on how seriously each EPA region took the assignment. For example, the Rocky Mountain, Pacific Northwest and Northern California regions went for broke and collected samples and tested to the extent of the available science. EPA regions 2 and 3, which go from Virginia through New Jersey and New York, pretty much blew the assignment off.
I remember being at a meeting in EPA headquarters when representatives from those mid-Atlantic regions boasted to each other about only doing windshield surveys, which meant they drove by the sites but never got out of the car.
I’m not sure how much that has changed, if any. I just received a copy of a May 29 memo from Region 3 about revisiting the Grace sites for additional testing. The note ended with this advice: “Windshield Survey’s or Drive-Bys should be referred to as ‘Site Reconnaissance.’”
Technologically, much has happened in the almost 10 years since the initial tests were done on the old Grace sites. There are new techniques for testing and analysis and the long-used trigger for a cleanup – the presence of 1 percent asbestos or more – no longer applies.
That number was used since the 1970s, but meant little in determining safety.
“EPA has never determined that materials containing less than 1 percent asbestos necessarily present an acceptable exposure level, and indeed, scientists have not been able to develop a safe level for exposure to airborne asbestos,” Government Accountability Office investigators said in a March report to Congress on the effectiveness of the EPA cleanup. Here is a link to a GAO database with information on many of the Grace operations.
Keven McDermott, who heads the team of EPA scientists investigating the Spokane site, and her senior investigator, Jed Januch, watched the chemists crawl across the lawn digging holes to collect soil from the yards of residences near the former Grace plant.
The pair led EPA’s initial evaluation of the plant.
“When we first investigated the old plant eight years ago, we were learning as we went along. We used common sense and the techniques available at the time to try and figure out whether people living near the old facility were at risk of being exposed to asbestos.
“Since then we’ve made real strides. We’ve developed new sampling methods and improved our analytical techniques.”
For example, samples collected from the Spokane site will be run through a unique device developed by Januch that will separate the microscopic asbestos fibers from the soil so scientists can determine the type and amount of asbestos.
“We owe it to the community to conduct a thorough assessment. After all, our mission is to protect human health and the environment,” said McDermott who retires from the EPA this week after 37 years of federal service.
EPA is not alone in its professed concern for people living near the old Grace sites.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a bizarre name but is often masterful in determining the effect on public health of hazardous substances. It has been tracking the health implications of Libby’s vermiculite ore since 2000.
In October, ATSDR’s investigators recommended existing EPA data for the “Libby sisters” or Grace processing operations, be re-evaluated to determine whether the residual asbestos that may remain at the old sites and nearby homes constitutes a health threat to those living or working there.
“Our goals are to inform the public and reach out to workers and families who may have been exposed and have not yet sought out necessary medical screening,” the health agency said.Here is a link to the ATSDR report.,
Asbestos can cause pulmonary diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Traditionally, it was thought that asbestos was only a threat to workers exposed to high doses for years and that they symptoms took 15 to 30 years to develop.
Studies on victims in Libby showed that it wasn’t just the miners that got sick, or just their family members. Many people with no connection to the mine have had their lives destroyed by the fibers in the vermiculite and, physicians in Libby says that some of their younger victims began showing signs of illness in a few as 10 years.