Internal investigators faulted the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday for years of delays in completing health studies needed to guide the cleanup of a Montana mining town where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.
The EPA's Office of Inspector General said in a report that the studies are necessary to determine whether expensive, ongoing cleanup efforts are working in the town of Libby.
The area near the northwest corner of the state, about 50 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, was declared a public health emergency in 2009, a decade after federal regulators first responded to concerns over asbestos dust that came from a W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.
The vermiculite was used as insulation in millions of homes across the U.S.
At least $447 million has been spent on the cleanup and the town remains under the first-of-its-kind emergency declaration issued by then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The deaths among residents are expected to continue for decades due to the long latency of asbestos-related diseases.
The inspector General first raised concerns about the government's failure to figure out the danger posed by Libby asbestos more than six years ago, at the prodding of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and former Sen. Conrad Burns. After earlier denying proposals to carry out a formal risk assessment, the agency in 2007 said it would be done by 2010.
It's still at work on the document, with completion now slated for late 2014.
"That should have been the first thing they did," Libby Mayor Doug Roll said Thursday. "When something hurting people and in this case killing them you need to find out what's toxic."
In Thursday's report, investigators attributed the delays to competing priorities within the agency, contracting problems and unanticipated work that came up as the process unfolded.
For his part, EPA Acting Regional Administrator Howard Cantor said the agency strongly disagrees with many of the Inspector General's conclusions.
Cantor said the risk and toxicity studies are complex endeavors that need to be done properly to make sure Libby's residents are protected.
He added that the cleanup already has addressed 1,700 homes and commercial properties and resulted in the removal of 1.2 million tons of contaminated soil.
"The rigor with which we're undertaking efforts to protect public health and the environment have not been affected by these delays," he said.
But the investigators said poor communication with Libby residents, members of Congress and the Inspector General's Office compounded the problem. They added that the agency's lack of transparency could undermine confidence in its work in Libby.
A draft toxicology study that is key to completing the risk assessment for Libby says even an extremely small amount of asbestos fibers from the now-shuttered W.R. Grace mine can cause health problems.
Representatives of W.R. Grace and others in the chemical industry have pushed for revisions, saying the toxicity level set by the EPA is impractical because it exceeds background levels of asbestos found in some parts of the country.
Montana U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said in a statement responding to Thursday's report that the EPA needs to avoid its past mistakes and get its studies done quickly.
"We need to move forward with this toxicological assessment, so we are making the right decisions based on the right science," Baucus said.
Meanwhile, the cleanup grinds on. At least 80 and up to 100 properties in town are queued up for work this year, according to the EPA.
Several hundred properties still need to be addressed, and that list could grow significantly if the agency's studies determine certain properties need to be revisited.
Work on the mine site outside town has barely begun. It closed in 1990 and remains the responsibility of W.R. Grace. A company spokesman did not immediately reply to an Associated Press request for comment.