Importance of public health emergency ‘cannot be overstated’: Health board sends second letter to EPA concerning future talks of designation

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The Lincoln City-County Board of Health has drafted a second letter to the Environmental Protection Agency in response to comments it says agency staff have made regarding Libby’s public health emergency designation.

The second letter, dated Feb. 28, expands upon a letter sent Feb. 15 to Douglas Benevento, administrator of EPA Region 8 in Denver, requesting that any decision to continue or terminate the public health emergency “not be made without community input and thorough vetting of the issue” and not without the health board’s involvement.

“The focus in the earlier letter was potential impacts on funding during Operation and Maintenance activities,” states the latest letter. “However, there are additional concerns of equal or greater health care impacts.”

The letter then reiterates the importance to the Libby area of the public health emergency, which was enacted in June 2009. The designation has made available funding for the continued care of area residents whose health has been impacted by exposure to Libby Amphibole asbestos.

“The importance of continuing these programs cannot be overstated,” the Feb. 28 letter states. “A 2017 community health needs assessment identified asbestos related disease as the No. 1 community health concern.”

The letter was signed by County Health Officer Dr. Brad Black — who also heads up the Center for Asbestos Related Disease — and Jan Ivers, chair of the Board of Health.

The writing of the first letter was prompted by comments George Jamison, the board’s vice chair, made at the board’s Feb. 14 meeting. He said that the topic of rescinding the public health emergency had been “tangentially mentioned” during routine meetings among the board, the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality regarding the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

Jamison characterized the nature of discussions about rescinding the public health emergency as “not well-defined” and couldn’t say with certainty who from the agency had broached the topic.

In response to the first letter, Mike Cirian, EPA site manager for Libby, provided a statement from the EPA to The Western News saying that “the site is still considered to be a public health emergency.”

According to the statement, “the (public health emergency) determination made it possible for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide asbestos-related medical care to eligible Libby and Troy residents. (The) EPA is continuing to identify and conduct activities needed to complete remedial action.”

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