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Longest-running asbestos cleanup project winds down

After hundreds of deaths, thousands of property cleanups and millions of dollars spent on abatement and in settlements, then end to the longest-running asbestos cleanup project in the U.S. is near.

For 20 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has worked to clean up the remnants of W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. The EPA is scheduled to hand over the project to the state’s environmental agency within the year.

Mining vermiculite since 1919

The vermiculite mine, just east of the town located in the far northwest corner of Montana, opened in 1919 and closed in 1990. The vermiculite, commercially marketed as Zonolite, is laced with asbestos.

Not only were the miners and their families exposed to asbestos, but W.R. Grace gave piles of vermiculite to the town to use as fill for ballfields, playgrounds, gardens and schools.

Today, an estimated 400 people have died and 2,400 more have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases because of the mine.

The disaster was uncovered by journalists in 1999. The EPA designated the town as a Superfund site in 2002 and began removing one million cubic yards of contaminated dirt and building materials from virtually every corner of the town at a cost of $600 million. More than 8,100 properties were inspected and more than 2,600 asbestos abatement projects were required.

A mixture of hope and realism

The EPA will remove the town from the National Priorities List in 2020. Townspeople are anxious to put the disaster behind them and concentrate on the future.

But mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can take up to 50 years to develop, so the medical needs of townsfolk are not likely to go away soon.

In addition, more than 700 properties were never inspected, either because the owners could not be located or they refused to let government inspectors onto the property. As those properties change hands, new owners will have them inspected and cleanup will likely be necessary.

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