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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.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.

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