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: Published: Oct 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Oct 12, 2007.

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Between 1923 and the early 1990s, a mine near Libby, Montana, shipped millions of tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore to sites throughout the United States. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to clean up asbestos contamination at the Libby mine and evaluate those sites that received the ore to determine if they were contaminated. Under Superfund program regulations and guidance, EPA regional offices took steps to inform affected communities of contamination problems and agency efforts to address them. GAO was asked to (1) describe the status of EPA's and other federal agencies' efforts to assess and address potential risks at the facilities that received contaminated Libby ore and (2) determine the extent and effectiveness of EPA's public notification efforts about cleanups at sites that received Libby ore. GAO, among other steps, convened focus groups in three of the affected communities to address these issues.

Since 2000, EPA has evaluated 271 sites thought to have received asbestos-contaminated ore from Libby, Montana, but did so without key information on safe exposure levels for asbestos. Based on these evaluations, 19 sites were found to be contaminated with asbestos from the Libby ore and needed to be cleaned up. EPA or the state of jurisdiction generally led or oversaw the cleanups. In general, a cleanup would be performed 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. However, these standards are not health-based and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the sampling and analysis methods EPA used at most of the sites it examined were limited and have since been improved. The EPA Office of Inspector General reported in December 2006 that EPA had not completed an assessment of the toxicity of the asbestos in the Libby ore. Until it completes this assessment, EPA cannot be assured that the Libby site itself is cleaned to safe levels, nor will it know the extent to which the sites that received Libby ore may need to be reevaluated. EPA has agreed to complete a risk and toxicity assessment by the end of fiscal year 2010. EPA regional offices did not implement key provisions of the agency's public notification regulations at 8 of the 13 sites for which EPA had lead responsibility. At four sites, for example, EPA either did not provide and maintain documentation about the cleanups for public review and comment or provide for a public comment period. Also, although EPA guidance emphasizes that simply complying with the public notification rules is often insufficient to meet communities' needs, at five sites EPA did not go beyond these provisions. Reaction among community members to EPA's public notification measures was mixed. At two of the three sites in which GAO held focus groups with affected community members, participants were critical of EPA's efforts to inform them about the cleanup of the asbestos-contaminated sites in their neighborhood. These included participants in Hamilton Township, New Jersey and Minot, North Dakota who noted that newspaper notices did not identify asbestos as the contaminant in question and contained unclear and bureaucratic language. On the other hand, participants in Dearborn, Michigan praised EPA efforts to, among other things, hold public meetings and hand-deliver written notices.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In late 2008, EPA provided guidance on assessment techniques for asbestos. Activity-based sampling (ABS) is highlighted as an approach which can be used to determine site-specific cleanup levels and the need for further action. According to EPA, ABS is being used, as needed, to further assess targeted exfoliation sites that are believed to have received Libby ore. Additional sampling and analysis techniques being piloted include the Releasable Asbestos Field Sampler and the Fluidized Bed Asbestos Segregator.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to determine the manner and extent to which newly available sampling and analysis techniques should be used to re-evaluate the threat that the sites receiving Libby ore may pose to human health.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As outlined in EPA's Strategy for Further Assessment of Vermiculite Sites, (10/08), EPA has targeted for further assessment 105 exfoliation sites that are believed to have received vermiculite ore from Libby, MT. Since implementation of the vermiculite strategy, site assessments are underway (56 sites) or complete (49 sites) at all of the sites.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to determine whether any additional sites that received the Libby ore need to be cleaned up when the results of the risk and toxicity assessment--now scheduled to be completed in 2010--are available.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) has conducted training sessions at its National On-Scene-Coordinator Conference in 2009 and 2010 addressing National Contingency Plan protocols and has included public notification procedures specific to asbestos site-assessment and cleanup activities. OSWER is also holding monthly calls with the EPA regional points of contact on vermiculite exfoliation site assessments. Public-notification issues and updates are a regular item for discussion.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to review regional offices' implementation of the National Contingency Plan public-notification provisions and associated guidance and ensure that, in the future, (1) regional offices appropriately determine the extent of community outreach needed and (2) newspaper notifications are prominent and written in clear language that contains all critical information, such as the name of the contaminant, the location of the site, and the associated health risks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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