Libby Asbestos Superfund site: Funding, steering committee dominate advisory team meeting

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The Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team met Thursday, March 8, at the Lincoln County Courthouse, where it heard from stakeholders including a committee established to advise on the operation and maintenance phase of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

Thursday was the first time the team — outlined in Senate Bill 315, signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock last May and required to meet quarterly — met in Libby. Its first two meetings were held in Helena.

In addition to creating the advisory team, Senate Bill 315 set up a trust fund, an operation and maintenance account and a liaison, among other items related to the cleanup of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

The team is comprised of five people chosen according to parameters outlined in SB315: Montana DEQ Director Tom Livers, who serves as the team chair; Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck; Rep. Steve Gunderson (Montana District 1); Sen. Chas Vincent (State Senate District 1); and Lincoln County citizen George Jamison.

Yet to be filled is the Libby-based position of a liaison — a DEQ employee who will serve as staff to the advisory team.

The bulk of the roughly three-hour meeting comprised a status update from the Institutional Controls Steering Committee, an advisory body to the City-County Board of Health.

In a thorough presentation, Jamison, who co-chairs the committee with Peck, covered how and why the committee was established in May 2017 and what it so far has achieved over the course of about 11 meetings.

A big part of the discussion centered on the committee’s expectations, including a recently released position statement asserting that “property owners will not bear the cost of any future issues” related to the site.

The position was predicated by seemingly inconsistent and infrequent communications by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding who is responsible for the monitoring and maintenance — and any associated costs — of the cleanup remedy the agency has spent years putting in place.

Whereas letters the EPA once sent to property owners following cleanup promised “no financial liability to the property owner or renter of this property, either current or future,” the EPA’s final Record of Decision, issued February 2016 and concerning the site’s operating units 4 through 8, states that aspects of monitoring and maintenance “will be left to the property owner.”

In an impassioned explanation, Peck said that the stance focuses not only on the public health ramifications of protecting the remedy, but also the economic realities of the citizens of Lincoln County.

“Transferring the cost of that remedy and putting it on the backs of the citizens of Lincoln County — as a county commissioner I cannot go there,” Peck said. “I just can’t. It’ll be an economic disaster.”

Peck said he has been looking for “a commitment … to really sit down and roll up the sleeves and take this thing on,” adding that representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency have indicated a willingness to address the situation.

“Somehow, we’ve got to figure out a way to not put this on the backs of the citizens of Lincoln County,” Peck said.

The team also discussed the process of hiring the liaison and reviewed its budget.

According to SB 315, “the liaison shall represent the interests of Lincoln County and the state by assisting the department of environmental quality in dealing with federal agencies related to the Libby asbestos Superfund site.”

The bill also stipulates that the Lincoln County commission will nominate three candidates for the position and the governor will make the final decision.

Peck said that the position has been advertised in local newspapers and requested that the DEQ provide guidance for how best to interview candidates for a public position.

In providing the team with an overview of the budget, Jenny Chambers of the DEQ summarized the funding made available for the operations and maintenance phase of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

One funding source in particular — the roughly $5.2 million DEQ received as part of the W.R. Grace bankruptcy settlement — caused Vincent and Gunderson to express concern that the team do what it could to ensure the monies remain dedicated to the site and not be re-appropriated elsewhere.

“I would agree with both of you,” Livers responded. “As we get more and more fiscal challenges, more and more ways are found to tap into different pots of money that historically have enjoyed some protection.”

Livers said the team would “keep it in the forefront of the budget overview,” while Chambers said she would “get a legal review and write up on what the current settlement states.”

“From a department standpoint we think it might be already restrictive enough” so as not to be available for other uses, she added.

As the meeting came to a close, Livers said that he was “pretty excited about this group.”

“I’m intrigued and committed,”he said. “I want this committee to develop enough trust among itself to be candid and open, to put issues on the table, to call BS if we have to — in a civil way — and to work through it and not be afraid to bring things out and work effectively together.”

The next Advisory Team meeting will likely be in May in Libby.

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