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EPA Pushes Tough Asbestos Standard For Mont. Town

MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ A proposed standard for federal cleanup of asbestos contamination in a Montana town concludes that even a tiny amount of the material can lead to lung problems â¿¿ a benchmark far more rigorous than any in the past and one that the industry says could force expensive and unnecessary cleanups across the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency's new proposal for the northwest Montana town of Libby, where asbestos dust has killed hundreds of people, would be 5,000 times tougher than the standard used in past cleanups addressing airborne asbestos.

W.R. Grace & Co., the Maryland chemical company blamed for pollution from its vermiculite mine that operated for decades, is pushing back against the EPA, suggesting sites across the country could be subjected to costly cleanups.

The ongoing Superfund cleanup in Libby has cost at least $447 million since 1999 and is expected to last several more years. The town of about 3,000 people is about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

Experts say the EPA proposal is a move long sought by advocates and fiercely resisted by the industry. An EPA board met this week to discuss Grace objections to the proposal, part of a pending risk study for Libby.

"In many respects it would be like banning it, getting it so low," said former assistant U.S. Surgeon General Richard Lemen, who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. "EPA is being realistic and saying, 'Look, we know there's asbestos out there and we're not going to get rid of all of it, but let's put our concentration as low as we possibly can.'"

EPA officials didn't respond to questions about the nationwide consequences of its plan. It would declare airborne asbestos concentrations exceeding two-100,000ths of a fiber per cubic centimeter pose a health risk. The EPA has previously taken action when the substance was airborne in amounts greater than one-tenth of a fiber per cubic centimeter.

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