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entitled 'Hazardous Materials: Status of EPA's Efforts to Assess Sites 
That Mat Have Received Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana' 
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March 10, 2009: 

The Honorable Darrell Issa: 

Ranking Member: 

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: 

House of Representatives: 

The Honorable Christopher H. Smith: 

House of Representatives: 

Subject: Hazardous Materials: Status of EPA's Efforts to Assess Sites 
That May Have Received Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana: 

In October 2007, we reported on how the Environmental Protection Agency 
(EPA) and other federal agencies had assessed and addressed risks at 
sites that were thought to have received asbestos-contaminated ore from 
a mine located in Libby, Montana, and the overall results of these 
efforts.[Footnote 1] As we noted at that time, EPA has identified 
hundreds of sites nationwide that are thought to have received millions 
of tons of the contaminated ore between 1923 and the early 
1990s.[Footnote 2] Figure 1 shows the distribution of the 266 sites 
across the states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In this 
context, you asked that we provide a database with detailed 
descriptions of EPA's efforts to assess and address risk at each of the 
266 sites that have been identified. 

This report provides information that will be helpful in understanding 
the site descriptions in the database, which is provided in a separate 
report, entitled Hazardous Materials: EPA's Assessment of Sites That 
May Have Received Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana (GAO- 
09-7SP). For each of the sites that EPA had identified, the database 
provides available information on the site's location, how much ore was 
shipped to the site, and the type of facility that operated at the 
site, as well as whether EPA visited the site and conducted sampling 
and what EPA's evaluation showed. The data on the amount of ore 
received are based on an EPA database of W.R. Grace invoices for 
shipments of vermiculite ore from the Libby mine between 1964 and 1990. 
EPA does not believe it has an invoice for every shipment of ore that 
was made during this time; the database represents only the invoices 
EPA was able to collect. For about 28 percent of the sites that are in 
the database, the amount of ore received is unknown. For these reasons, 
the information on the number of sites receiving the contaminated ore 
and the amount of ore received is likely to be understated. 

Figure 1: Nationwide Distribution of 266 Sites Investigated by EPA for 
Potential Contamination from Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Ore: 

[Refer to PDF for image] 

This figure is a map of nationwide distribution of 266 sites 
investigated by EPA for potential contamination from asbestos-
contaminated vermiculite ore. 

Sources: EPA (information); Map Resources (map). 

Note: Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico are not to scale. 

[End of figure] 

The vermiculite ore mined in Libby contained high concentrations of 
naturally occurring asbestos. At some of the facilities that received 
Libby ore, manufacturing processes--to produce such products as 
building insulation, fireproofing material, and some gardening 
products--released the asbestos into the air. Some workers and others 
who inhaled the asbestos fibers developed serious, in some cases fatal, 
asbestos-related respiratory illnesses. As we reported in October 2007, 
EPA began to clean up asbestos contamination in the Libby area in 2000 
and to identify and evaluate those sites that received the ore to 
determine if they were contaminated.[Footnote 3] Enclosure I provides 
an overview of EPA's process for identifying and assessing sites 
thought to have received the asbestos-contaminated ore. 

As of January 2009, with the assistance of other federal and state 
agencies, EPA had evaluated 266 sites thought to have received the 
asbestos-contaminated ore from the Libby mine, conducted sampling at 82 
sites, and determined that 21 needed to be cleaned up (removal 
actions).[Footnote 4] However, as we reported in October 2007, EPA used 
cleanup standards for the sites that were not health-based, and it had 
not completed an assessment for determining the toxicity of the 
asbestos in the Libby ore.[Footnote 5] We also found that the sampling 
and analysis techniques that EPA used at some of the sites were 
limited, and advances in technology have since led to the development 
of more accurate methods.[Footnote 6] EPA has initiated plans to 
complete an assessment of the toxicity and associated risks of Libby 
asbestos by the end of fiscal year 2010. 

EPA has also initiated steps to reassess its procedures for collecting 
data on the nature and extent of asbestos contamination at sites, 
including methods for analyzing samples collected. As a part of this 
effort, in September 2008, EPA issued a framework for investigating and 
characterizing the potential for human exposure from asbestos 
contamination in outdoor soil and indoor dust at CERCLA sites.[Footnote 
7] Among other things, the framework discusses strategies for 
performing assessments at asbestos sites that are based on the best 
available science and recommends methods for characterizing exposure 
and risk from asbestos. If and when all of its planned actions are 
completed, EPA should be better able to determine if any of the sites 
that received Libby ore may still pose a risk to public health and need 
to be reevaluated. 

Because of a pending federal criminal case against W.R. Grace (the 
company that owned the Libby vermiculite mine and some of the 
facilities that processed ore from the mine),[Footnote 8] we designed 
our methodology to minimize direct contact with EPA staff. To obtain 
information on the status of efforts to assess and address potential 
risks at each of the sites identified as potentially receiving the 
Libby ore, we asked EPA to review for accuracy and completeness a list 
of vermiculite sites that we originally obtained from the Agency for 
Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This list was largely 
based on site data that ATSDR had obtained from EPA. For each site, the 
data included the location, type of facility, amount of ore received, 
and limited information on the results of EPA's evaluation. EPA 
officials reviewed the list and provided comments and clarifications. 
We also submitted questions in writing to EPA to clarify some of the 
information provided by the agency and EPA provided its responses in 
writing. 

We conducted this engagement from December 2007 to March 2009 in 
accordance with all sections of GAO's Quality Assurance Framework that 
are relevant to our objectives. The framework requires that we plan and 
perform the engagement to obtain sufficient and appropriate evidence to 
meet our stated objective and to discuss any limitations in our work. 
We believe that the information and data obtained, and the analysis 
conducted, provide a reasonable basis for any findings and conclusions. 
A more detailed description of our scope and methodology is presented 
in enclosure II. 

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation: 

We provided a draft of this report and the related information on the 
assessment of each of the sites to EPA for comment. EPA generally 
agreed with the information presented and provided only technical 
comments which we incorporated, as appropriate. 

As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce the contents 
of this report earlier, we plan no further distribution until 30 days 
from the report date. At that time, we will send copies of this report 
to interested congressional committees and the EPA Administrator, and 
other interested parties. The report also will be available at no 
charge on the GAO Web site at [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov]. 

If you or your staffs have questions about this report, please contact 
me at (202) 512-3841 or stephensonj@gao.gov. Contact points for our 
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on 
the last page of this report. GAO staff who made major contributions to 
this report are included in enclosure III. 

Signed by: 

John B. Stephenson: 

Director, Natural Resources and Environment: 

[End of section] 

Enclosures: 

Enclosure I: 

EPA's Actions to Identify and Evaluate Sites Believed to Have Received 
Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana: 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken a number of actions 
to identify and evaluate sites that may have received asbestos- 
contaminated vermiculite ore from a mine in Libby, Montana, and has 
carried out removal actions at some of the sites. In early 2000, EPA 
began compiling a list of facilities that might have received asbestos- 
contaminated vermiculite ore from the Libby mine. To compile the list, 
it used shipping records and other information obtained from W.R. 
Grace, as well as historical information about vermiculite-processing 
facilities from the Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

After coordinating with the U.S. Geological Survey to update and revise 
the list of facilities and eliminate duplicate entries, EPA identified 
266 sites that may have received the contaminated ore. These sites were 
located in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The 
most sites were in California (27) and Texas (26). EPA has continued to 
identify sites and, according to EPA, will investigate them as it deems 
necessary. For example, as recently as July 2006, EPA identified 4 
additional sites (included in the 266) that it needed to assess for 
asbestos contamination. 

The site data that EPA collected showed that most (95 percent) of the 
vermiculite ore known to have been shipped from Libby between 1964 and 
1990 went to facilities that converted it into commercial vermiculite 
through a process called exfoliation (expansion). Exfoliation plants 
heated the vermiculite ore to approximately 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, 
causing the ore to expand, or "pop." This expanded vermiculite was then 
used in a variety of products, including loose-fill insulation in 
homes. Because significant quantities of asbestos fibers were likely 
released during the exfoliation process, EPA deemed exfoliation plants 
to be the most likely of the facilities that received Libby ore to have 
caused environmental contamination and exposure. 

Because exfoliation facilities were likely to pose the most risk, while 
conducting site investigations, EPA paid particular attention to 
whether a site had the characteristics of an exfoliation plant. For 
example, vermiculite ore was often delivered to these facilities in 
bulk by railcar. Workers generally used shovels or mechanical equipment 
to unload ore from the railcars and transport it to open stockpiles or 
enclosed silos for storage or to a furnace for exfoliation. After the 
exfoliation process was completed, stoner rock--waste material-- 
remained and might have been placed in a dump on the site, offered to 
workers or the public for gardening and landscaping, or disposed of in 
a landfill off-site. While the vermiculite ore was being handled or 
processed, it could be scattered on the ground in areas where it was 
unloaded, stored, or exfoliated and was recognizable as a shiny, 
sparkly, mica-like material on the ground. Therefore, the presence of 
railroad spurs, silos, furnaces, waste rock, or shiny, sparkly material 
in the soil was an indication that a site could have been used to 
exfoliate vermiculite ore. 

In their investigation of sites, EPA regions generally tried to 
determine the facilities' locations using a variety of methods, 
including title searches; reviews of town records; and interviews with 
people who might provide useful information, such as company 
representatives or people who formerly worked at the sites. Once they 
identified an accurate address for a site, regional officials performed 
a preliminary assessment to determine current site conditions and 
gather additional information on past operations at the site. These 
assessments generally included viewing the suspected location and its 
surrounding area and, in some instances, interviewing business owners 
and residents in the immediate vicinity. 

If these initial assessments indicated the need for further 
examination, the regions typically conducted a detailed investigation. 
This investigation usually consisted of a site visit, which included a 
more thorough inspection of the property and surrounding area; 
additional interviews with people who might be knowledgeable about past 
operations, such as facility representatives; reviews of any relevant 
and available documentation from state and federal agencies; and, if 
deemed necessary, collection of soil and air samples. 

For the sites where the regions decided sampling was warranted, EPA 
collected samples of "bulk" materials (such as raw vermiculite ore, 
suspected vermiculite waste piles, and soils). EPA collected air 
samples if it was concerned that disturbing contaminated materials (in 
the soil or elsewhere) could send asbestos fibers migrating into the 
air, where it could be inhaled. According to the information EPA 
provided, EPA collected samples of bulk materials and, in some cases 
air samples, for at least 82 (or 31 percent) of the sites.[Footnote 9] 

One of the most important factors that EPA regional offices considered 
in determining whether a site needed to be cleaned up was the amount of 
asbestos at the site. In general, a cleanup would be performed if 
sampling results indicated that asbestos was present in amounts greater 
than 1 percent (based on the percentage of the area of a microscopic 
field) in soils or debris, or greater than 0.1 asbestos fibers per 
cubic centimeter of air. According to EPA, the "1 percent threshold" 
for asbestos in soils or debris is not a health-based standard, but 
rather is related to the limit of detection for the analytical methods 
available during the early years of EPA's asbestos program (early 
1970s) and to EPA's desire to concentrate resources on materials 
containing higher percentages of asbestos. 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[Footnote 10]. Of the sites where EPA confirmed sampling had 
taken place, 25 had levels of asbestos that exceeded the thresholds, 28 
had detectable levels of asbestos that were below the thresholds (trace 
amounts, or less than 1 percent), and 27 had no detectable levels of 
asbestos[Footnote 11]. 

After reviewing the sampling results and other pertinent information 
collected about the sites, EPA--and in some instances states--
identified 21 sites where contamination from the asbestos in Libby ore 
needed to be cleaned up. With the exception of 1 site, all of the sites 
that were cleaned up had levels of asbestos in soils that exceeded the 
1 percent threshold.[Footnote 12] For the one exception, a site located 
in Salt Lake City, all of the soil samples contained trace amounts of 
asbestos (less than 1 percent). However, after raking the ground and 
using a leaf blower, EPA collected air samples that showed elevated 
levels of asbestos fibers exceeding the threshold of 0.1 asbestos 
fibers per cubic centimeter of air. As a result, EPA determined this 
site needed to be cleaned up as well. 

[End of section] 

Enclosure II: 

Scope and Methodology: 

Because of a pending federal criminal case against W.R. Grace (the 
company that owned the Libby vermiculite mine and some of the 
facilities that processed ore from the mine),[Footnote 13] we designed 
our methodology to minimize direct contact with EPA staff. Accordingly, 
we obtained most of the information we needed about EPA's assessments 
of the sites that were believed to have received asbestos-contaminated 
Libby ore by submitting questions to EPA in writing; the agency 
provided written responses. We did not further pursue access to this 
information because we had sufficient data to respond to our objective. 

To describe the process EPA generally followed to identify and evaluate 
sites, we used information from our October 2007 report on contaminated 
vermiculite.[Footnote 14] To describe the status of EPA's efforts to 
assess and address potential risks at each of the facilities thought to 
have received asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore from the Libby 
mine, we obtained a table of sites that had potentially received 
contaminated ore from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This table 
was largely based on data that ATSDR had received from EPA about each 
of the sites. The table included, for each site, the location, type of 
facility, and limited information on the status of EPA's assessments of 
the sites as of April 2003. The table also included information on the 
amount of ore received as of April 2001. For our previous report on 
contaminated vermiculite, we asked EPA to verify, update, and complete 
the information in the table. The information was last updated in May 
2007. To develop the database of sites, we asked EPA to review the 
table of sites and update it as needed. We also submitted written 
questions to clarify the data in the table. Through correspondence, we 
obtained EPA's comments and clarifications about the site data and 
responses to our written questions.[Footnote 15] 

We also collected and analyzed relevant documentation about the sites 
from EPA's Superfund record centers, which are public repositories, and 
analyzed health consultation reports that ATSDR prepared for 28 of the 
sites. To the extent possible, we used the information from the record 
centers and the health consultations to verify and supplement the site 
information EPA provided. However, we did not attempt to independently 
verify the site information provided by EPA. 

We conducted this engagement from December 2007 to March 2009 in 
accordance with all sections of GAO's Quality Assurance Framework that 
are relevant to our objectives. The framework requires that we plan and 
perform the engagement to obtain sufficient and appropriate evidence to 
meet our stated objective and to discuss any limitations in our work. 
We believe that the information and data obtained, and the analysis 
conducted, provide a reasonable basis for any findings and conclusions. 

[End of section] 

Enclosure III: 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

GAO Contact: 

John B. Stephenson, (202) 512-3841 or stephensonj@gao.gov: 

Staff Acknowledgments: 

In addition to the individual named above, Steve Elstein (Assistant 
Director), Alice Feldesman, Richard Johnson, Carol Herrnstadt Shulman, 
and Lisa Turner made key contributions to this report. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] GAO, Hazardous Materials: EPA May Need to Reassess Sites Receiving 
Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana, and Should Improve Its 
Public Notification Process, GAO-08-71 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 12, 
2007). 

[2] GAO's October 2007 report provided information on 271 sites that 
EPA had identified for assessment. When asked to provide detailed 
information about each of the sites, EPA determined that 5 of the sites 
were duplicates. Therefore, this report refers to EPA's assessment of 
266 sites. 

[3] The cleanups conducted by EPA in Libby, Montana, and the 
evaluations of the sites that received the contaminated ore were 
conducted under the authority of the Comprehensive Environmental 
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 as amended (CERCLA), 
42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq. 

[4] There are two basic types of cleanup actions: (1) removal actions-
-generally short-term or emergency cleanups to mitigate threats--and 
(2) remedial actions--generally long-term cleanup activities. 

[5] In general, EPA performed a cleanup if sampling results indicated 
asbestos was present in amounts greater than 1 percent (based on the 
percentage area in a microscopic field) in soils or debris or greater 
than 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air. According to EPA, 
the "1 percent threshold" for asbestos in soils or debris is not a 
health-based standard, but is rather related to the limit of detection 
for the analytical methods available during the early years of EPA's 
asbestos program (early 1970s) and to EPA's desire to concentrate 
resources on materials containing higher percentages of asbestos. 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. 

[6] EPA used polarized light microscopy (PLM) at most of the sites to 
visually estimate the percentage of asbestos in bulk samples. This type 
of analysis can distinguish between asbestos and nonasbestos fibers and 
different types of asbestos fibers but cannot reliably detect asbestos 
in low concentrations. Since EPA began its efforts to assess the sites 
potentially receiving ore from the Libby mine, it has worked with 
laboratories to refine the PLM analytical procedure to achieve 
detection levels of 0.2 percent. Transmission electron microscopy 
(TEM), a more sensitive analytical method than PLM, was also used at 
some sites. TEM can distinguish between asbestos and nonasbestos fibers 
and asbestos types. It can be used at higher magnifications, enabling 
identification of smaller asbestos fibers than can be seen by other 
techniques. However, it is difficult to use this technique to determine 
asbestos concentrations in soil and other bulk material. Also, the TEM 
analytical procedure typically is more than 10 times costlier than PLM, 
a fact that can be a limiting factor in its use. Phase contrast 
microscopy (PCM), which is generally used to measure asbestos fibers in 
air samples, was used at a few sites. This is the analytical method 
used in many federal programs to evaluate asbestos exposures (e.g., 
asbestos exposure in mining). PCM has limited use because it cannot 
differentiate between asbestos and nonasbestos fibers. For this reason, 
it was used at some of the sites in combination with TEM. 

[7] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and 
Emergency Response (OSWER), Framework for Investigating Asbestos- 
Contaminated Superfund Sites, OSWER Directive #9200.0-68, (Washington, 
D.C., September 2008). 

[8] United States v. W.R. Grace, Crim. No. 05-07, D. Mont., filed Feb. 
7, 2005. 

[9] For 20 sites in Region 4, EPA's files did not contain sufficient 
documentation to determine definitively if sampling had taken place. 

[10] After reviewing a draft of this report, EPA suggested that GAO use 
the term "acceptable risk" when describing exposure levels to asbestos. 
Regulations implementing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, 
Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 as amended (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 
§ 9601 et seq. use the term "acceptable exposure level" in describing 
cleanup goals for addressing risks posed by systemic toxicants or known 
or suspected carcinogens. 40 C.F.R. § 300.430(e) (2). Therefore, where 
this report describes EPA's actions related to assessments under CERCLA 
of risks posed by asbestos, we have used the term "acceptable exposure 
level." 

[11] For one site in Region 5, sampling results were unavailable 
because the site file was lost. For one site in Region 6, sampling 
occurred in November 2008 but the results were not available before our 
work was completed. 

[12] Five sites had asbestos contamination in excess of the 1 percent 
threshold but were not cleaned up under CERCLA. For one of those sites, 
located near Center, North Dakota, residual contamination was limited 
to a hopper used to process vermiculite ore. According to company 
officials, Libby ore was used for a 28-day trial period in the early 
1980s and has not been used since. The company agreed to have trained 
asbestos workers remove the residual vermiculite from the hopper, and 
Region 8 officials decided no further action was needed. For a site in 
Brutus, New York, after a review by a regional risk assessor and the 
EPA official in charge of the project, EPA decided that the site was 
not eligible for cleanup under CERCLA. For a site located in Dallas, 
Texas, although one sample in the furnace room contained 2 percent 
asbestos, because there were no vermiculite waste piles on the site, 
EPA decided not to perform a cleanup. EPA may reassess this site. For 
another site located in Billerica, Massachusetts, the asbestos found 
was predominately chrysotile asbestos, a type of asbestos not found in 
Libby ore. EPA decided a cleanup was not needed but may reassess this 
site again. Lastly, for a site located in Edgewater, New Jersey, EPA 
also found high levels of chrysotile asbestos. Since the New Jersey 
Department of Environmental Protection was taking lead responsibility 
for cleaning up this site, EPA took no further action. 

[13] United States v. W.R. Grace, Crim. No. 05-07, D. Mont., filed Feb. 
7, 2005. 

[14] GAO-08-71. 

[15] During our previous work on contaminated vermiculite, we submitted 
a set of questions to EPA to assess the reliability of the site 
information, focusing mainly on the data about the amount of ore 
received by each site. On the basis of EPA's responses regarding the 
accuracy and completeness of the information in the table of sites, we 
determined the data are adequate to provide conservative estimates of 
the amount of ore received by each site. 

[End of section] 

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