BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Grass and freshly planted trees are sprouting in a new town park that sits atop the site of a vermiculite plant that once spewed asbestos dust across the mountain community of Libby — a welcome dose of normalcy for a city that has become synonymous with lung disease and death.
It's a major milestone for the mining town of about 3,000 people near the Canadian border where an estimated 400 people to date have been killed by asbestos exposure. More than 1,700 have been sickened. Lethal dust from the WR. Grace and Co. plant and the company's nearby mine once blanketed the town, and asbestos illnesses are still being diagnosed more than two decades after the mine was shuttered.
Following a 12-year cleanup, Riverfront Park hosted a wedding last weekend. Officials said another wedding and a blues festival are scheduled for early August. For Mayor Doug Roll, the federal government's recent transfer of the park to the city offers a symbolic break from Libby's lethal past.
"It's sort of like Phoenix rising from the ashes," Roll said. "We've had a lot of negative stuff going on and we're trying to turn that around."
But the park — the first major finished piece of a federal cleanup that so far has cost $447 million — carries a significant asterisk: Because of the difficulty of removing all the asbestos-containing vermiculite from the highly-contaminated site, federal regulators say some of the dangerous material remains.
For three decades, the Grace plant was used to stockpile vermiculite from the mine before the material was exported by rail across the U.S. for use as attic insulation. The town's ball fields are right next door; Libby residents who today battle asbestos disease tell stories of playing in the plant's piles of raw vermiculite as children.
Just 18 inches beneath the park's surface beneath a cap of clean soil is a fluorescent orange barrier, a warning to those who dig on the site in the future that they face potential asbestos exposure.
It's one of many reminders that Libby's tragedy has yet to run its course.
The town remains under a first-of-its kind public health emergency declaration issued by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009. The deaths are expected to continue for decades due to the long latency of asbestos-related diseases.
Agency scientists still have not settled on a safe level of human exposure to the type of asbestos found in the Kootenai Valley. That means hundreds of homes and businesses cleaned once could face additional work.
Almost a million cubic yards of soil and contaminated material have been removed from Libby to date. Federal regulators say they hope to have that phase completed in the next three to five years. The end date is uncertain, pending the results of a risk assessment to determine safe levels of exposure.
The assessment could be finished sometime next year, said the EPA's Libby team leader, Victor Ketellapper. But citing the potency of Libby's asbestos, independent scientists reviewing the document already have questioned whether it goes far enough to protect human health. If they push for changes, that could further delay completion of the assessment — and the cleanup.
Jeff Camplin, an environmental safety consultant who has been working with activists in Libby, said the uncertain timetable means the EPA has pushed forward without enough scientific grounding to guide its cleanup.
"They just seem to be throwing money at the issue," said Camplin. "There's not a good handle on what is the scope of the problem, what is the overall master cleanup plan."
Camplin and others, including a former member of the town council, have warned that EPA contractors are inadvertently cross-contaminating the town in the rush to make it safer. They contend that earlier this year the contractors unknowingly pulled up steel parking barriers at Riverfront Park made from sections of pipe used by Grace to transport vermiculite, spilling raw material from the pipes and fouling the site yet again.
EPA's manager of the park site, Rebecca Thomas, rejected the claim, saying the pipes were neither contaminated nor in contact with contaminated soil. She said she did not know the history of the pipes themselves.
It wouldn't be the first time vermiculite turned up in an area already treated by the EPA. Since the agency descended on Libby in 1999 after media reports about rising numbers of deaths, the EPA and Grace have revisited the former export plant site at least six times to remove vermiculite or carry out other cleanup actions.
As recently as late May, vermiculite was found during excavation to install a communication line through the 17-acre park. Thomas said all of the vermiculite found was either removed or covered with clean material.
"We have utmost confidence that everything in the top 18 inches is clean," she said. "There are areas where it was left in place at low concentrations when it was found. It just doesn't make sense to just dig and dig and dig."
The plant site is one of two pieces of the cleanup finished so far. Work on the site of a second W.R. Grace plant was completed this summer.
Six targets are pending: The mine itself; Libby's houses, commercial buildings and public properties; a contaminated Stimson Lumber mill site; a Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line used to transport vermiculite out of town; the nearby town of Troy; and state highways in the area.
Most already have seen some vermiculite removals or other cleanup work, including almost 1,700 houses. The sprawling open-air mine outside of town — still controlled by Grace — is at the earliest stage of cleanup. Ketellapper said interim work there could begin as early as August.
Hazards still exist, particularly for excavators, landscapers and gardeners who dig in the dirt. But compared to when the mine was operating, Ketellapper said the air in Libby is "orders of magnitude" cleaner than it once was.
"When EPA first got here there were piles of highly-contaminated material on the surface. Piles of waste material on the ball fields," he said, adding that it's now rare for asbestos to be detected during air monitoring tests.
During the cleanup of the park site, Mayor Roll said he sat by the Kootenai one day considering Libby's future.
"The river was so calming it was weird. We turned something ugly into something beautiful. That will continue to go on," he said.