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EPA Deems Montana City An Environmentally Safe Place To Live

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency says it's safe again to live in Libby, Montana. That postcard-pretty mountain town has faced years of stigma. That's because dust from an asbestos mine blew onto Libby for decades and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 400 locals in the 1990s alone. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Seventy-one-year-old Gayla Benefield is an eyewitness to the tragedy in Libby. She still lives there in a log house beside the emerald green Kootenai River. Benefield's father worked at the mine. He died of asbestos-related disease in 1974. Her mother was diagnosed with it 10 years later from breathing the dust on her father's work clothes, she says.

GAYLA BENEFIELD: After that came the uncles and the aunts and my brother-in-law died of mesothelioma. My sister and I both have the disease. Both of her sons have the disease, one of our daughters.

WHITNEY: The mine closed 25 years ago. But the EPA didn't start cleaning up people's homes until over a decade later. And the dust people breathed continues to slowly stiffen their lungs and cause cancer and other diseases.

BENEFIELD: Every time I go into town, I find somebody new on oxygen. And it's - gee, you have a nice tank there. Where'd you get that? It's a way of life here.

WHITNEY: Benefield says things are better now. But 15 years after the cleanup started, there hasn't been any hard science confirming how safe or risky it is to live in Libby. Now there is. At a special meeting in Libby recently, EPA toxicologist Deborah McKean presented a new risk assessment that's the result of years of painstaking science.

DEBORAH MCKEAN: This risk assessment says that it is possible to live here without excessive exposure and fear of suffering from asbestos-related disease.

WHITNEY: McKean says people who've had their homes cleaned and avoid the area immediately around the former mine face no more risk from asbestos than those living in other Montana towns like Eureka and Helena.

MCKEAN: I think Libby is a wonderful place to live. It's a wonderful place to visit. And it is so much better than it was a number of years ago.

DAVID HARMAN: This has been a watershed event for this community.

WHITNEY: David Harman is a longtime Libby resident and along with many others, is tired of the town stigma. They felt for a long time that Libby's different now, but people still say things.

HARMAN: Absurd things and hurtful that we have had to put up with as a community. It's had its effect. We can put that in the past. We can get a good, positive message out going forward. Hopefully that will change the attitude of others towards Libby.

WHITNEY: Back at her home by the river, Gayla Benefield recognizes that the risk assessment signals the beginning of the end of the EPA's $400 million cleanup here.

MCKEAN: We've come a long ways.

WHITNEY: But Benefield says even though Libby's been declared generally safe, there's still plenty more cleanup that needs to be done. She's worried the risk assessment could mean less money to help homeowners get rid of residual asbestos.

BENEFIELD: The community should get together and try to negotiate that when people find it, it's going to be removed, that they are not going to have to pay for it out of pocket because they will not do it or have it done if they have to pay out of pocket.

WHITNEY: The EPA hopes to propose a final cleanup plan for Libby in the middle of next year. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Montana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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