In about a year, the Environmental Protection Agency will leave Libby, where it’s worked for the last two decades to clean up asbestos contamination, a lethal byproduct leftover from W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine. But locals in Lincoln County say the EPA packing up doesn’t necessarily mean cleanup work is done.
"Maybe thirty years from now it might be over, but it won't be over in my lifetime," says Mark Peck.
Peck is a Lincoln County Commissioner. He’s one of several local officials who’s figuring out what happens leading up to and after the state assumes management authority of contaminated sites in Libby.
While the EPA expects to finish remediating everything in Libby, except the former mine site, by the end of this year, Peck says he and the agencies he works alongside fully expect to find pockets of asbestos in the future, as people remodel or sell their homes and businesses dig into new developments.
"There's no way they could find everything here. So what if we find another big area that needs to be cleaned up? Who's responsible for that?"
The Montana Legislature tried to get ahead of those questions last session. They passed a bill that created the Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team to advise the state Department of Environmental Quality about asbestos-related funds and oversee a new liaison who would oversee the site for the long-term, or what’s called "Operations and Maintenance" in Superfund speak. The job offered $65,000 and full benefits — that's $20,000 more than what the Census Bureau says the average household income is in Libby. Unemployment in Lincoln County is nearly twice the rate of the state overall.
Peck says the Superfund Advisory Team advertised the position for almost a year but didn’t find a perfect fit.
"It's not the type of job where you bring somebody in and train them. They have to be very skilled leaders and managers, negotiators in order to fill that position."
Instead, Peck and his fellow advisory team members want to scrap the position and have their team to take on the work the liaison would have done. The change would require new legislation, which the Environmental Quality Council is currently drafting ahead of their September meeting.
Individual complaints and questions would still go to the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program, but the advisory team would handle the bigger questions of who pays and who’s responsible.
"So we don't know what all those duties are going to be," Peck says, "but they will be the conduit between DEQ and the county from an authority standpoint."
As Peck, the advisory team and the Legislature grapple with these big picture questions, the town of Libby is ready to move beyond its Superfund era and become, as Peck says, what it’s going to be. He says he’s starting to see glimmers of Libby’s new economy.
"You can't put a finger on it. It's not because some big company moved in with 200 jobs, but there's a lot of bright spots economically," Peck says.
"We like dirty, dusty, loud. And you can see it," says Tina Oliphant, the executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority.
"We're active. It is a construction-hat kind of working property," she says.
BNSF Railway recently picked the Libby Port Authority as one of its Certified Sites. The designation acts as a stamp of approval for rail-reliant businesses looking for a new hub.
Oliphant takes me on a driving tour through the 400-acre site. We drive past buildings rented by a post and pole plant, and a mine supply warehouse. There’s acres and acres of open lots and a 1,400-foot rail spur that Oliphant says is the Port Authority’s priority economic development asset.
Above the dust and hubbub of the industrial park rise the Cabinet Mountains.
"Some of the best scenery in this area of Lincoln County. I mean, we're seeing the complete north end of the Cabinet Peaks."
Oliphant says Libby once thrived at the intersection of wilderness and industry. The crash of the timber industry and Superfund designation derailed that for a few decades, but Oliphant says wilderness and industry will make Libby prosper again.
"We're hopeful that that relevant part of the population will start to see this place. "
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"Exactly. Our goal is to get this developed out and get it productive usage and adding, creating, community wealth through property taxes and jobs. That is the goal," Oliphant says
The Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team meets Friday, September 7 in Helena. They’ll discuss, among other things, options for the liaison position that’s proven difficult to fill.