EPA takes action to end asbestos cleanup along Montana railroad

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Environmental regulators are set to end a year-long cleanup along dozens of miles of railroad tracks in two northwestern Montana communities where lung-damaging asbestos from mining mining was responsible for hundreds of deaths.

The asbestos came from the mining of vermiculite which was processed and shipped by rail across the country for use as insulation, as a gardening soil additive and for other purposes.

After two decades of site investigations and cleanup efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are proposing to end their work at the rail yards of the towns of Libby and Troy and along 68 kilometers of railway right-of-way. .


The rail line will continue to be used, but owner BNSF Railway has agreed to manage the area in a way that protects human health, under a 2020 consent decree with federal authorities. This includes preventing the disturbance of soils and building materials that still contain asbestos.

The vermiculite mine owned by WR Grace operated until 1990 and left behind a legacy of toxic dust that health officials say killed at least 400 people and sickened thousands more. Cleanup work began in 2000 after media reports prompted federal authorities to investigate widespread health problems among area residents.

Libby Mayor Peggy Williams said the town no longer had issues with the BNSF property, where topsoil and contaminated structures had previously been removed. But she said residents could still come across vermiculite at home, such as during home reconstruction work where the material was used as insulation.

“The only thing that remains, that gives us problems, is the vermiculite left in the residential structures,” Williams said.

In total, over 2,600 homes, businesses and other properties have been cleaned up at a cost of over $600 million. Asbestos cleanup work at the mine itself is ongoing and is expected to continue for years.

On railroad property, soil removal and other actions were undertaken five times between 2004 and 2018. Cleanup workers hauled 8,415 cubic yards (6,433 cubic meters) of soil to a landfill of Lincoln County, according to EPA spokeswoman Beth Archer. This equates to approximately 800 dump truck loads.

Archer could not immediately provide a cost for the work.

According to Archer, a final decision on whether or not to remove the property from the EPA’s Superfund hazardous sites list is expected this fall after the public has had a chance to comment.

Litigation over WR Grace’s asbestos products contributed to the Maryland-based company’s bankruptcy, and in 2008 it agreed to pay a $250 million settlement for contamination in the Libby areas and Troy.

Numerous lawsuits from victims of asbestos exposure in the Libby area are pending against BNSF, insurance companies and other parties.

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