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EPA Presents Health Risk Assessment In Libby

Eric Whitney

In Libby Tuesday, about 30 people came to hear toxicologists from the Environmental Protection Agency explain a health risk assessment released Monday.

Many locals who've followed the EPA's studies closely were already confident that there's now little health risk from living in Libby. Agency toxicologist Deborah McKean confirmed that things are very different following the half-billion dollar clean up of the town started in 2002.

"Generally speaking, what this risk assessment says [is] that it is possible to live here without excessive exposure and fear of suffering from asbestos related disease," McKean told those assembled at Libby's town hall. 

Libby was stigmatized in 1999, when it became known that a vermiculite mine here created toxic asbestos dust that killed an estimated 400 people and sickened many more. This week's risk assessment quantifies what a dangerous level of exposure is, and says – in general – its safe to spend a lifetime in Libby.

David Harman has lived here 40 years. He says he hopes the risk assessment changes the kinds of things people say about Libby. 

"Absurd things, and hurtful, that we have had to put up with as a community," he said, visibly upset. "It's had its effect, we can put that in the past. We can get a good positive message out going forward. Hopefully that will change the attitude of others towards Libby."

The EPA says it would be impossible to remove all remaining asbestos, and that people can still be exposed to dangerous levels if they stir up dust in the mine area or don't have their homes and yards cleaned. It's proposing a plan for futher clean up it says should be ready in mid-2015.

We'll have more reaction from Libby to the EPA's risk assessment online and on the air soon. 

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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