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New plan IDs asbestos control for Libby railroad corridor

| March 23, 2021 2:44 PM

The public has until April 9 to review and comment on an institutional control and assurance plan for the BNSF-owned railway corridor at the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site.

The railroad corridor became contaminated when the railway company transported vermiculite containing toxic asbestos from the now defunct W.R. Grace & Co. mine near Libby. The corridor is one of several areas identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being in need of decontamination, and is referred to as Operable Unit 6 of the cleanup site.

Investigation and response actions have already been completed by BNSF.

According to EPA documents, those mitigation efforts have included the removal and disposal of soil containing Libby Amphibole Asbestos, placement of clean backfill in the BNSF Libby railyard and removal of BNSF-owned buildings within the unit.

With those efforts complete, attention can turn to the recently released plan. The document identifies certain institutional controls that are designed to be implemented, maintained and enforced at the unit by BNSF, the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

According to the EPA, institutional controls are essentially non-engineered instruments, such as administrative and legal controls, that help minimize the potential for human exposure to contamination and protect the integrity of the remedial actions.

BNSF agreed to develop and implement the activities to ensure the cleanup remedies continue to protect the public and the environment from the harms of asbestos.

Twenty potential institutional controls for the entire superfund site were identified via a Record of Decision in 2016. The new plan proposes using seven of those at Operable Unit 6, an area that stretches along 41 miles of railway corridor, varies in width from less than 100 feet to more than 300 feet, and encompasses rail yards in Libby and Troy.

THE PLAN states the main objectives of the chosen controls are to prevent toxic asbestos fibers that remain in soils and inaccessible building materials from becoming a future source of exposure, and track changes in land use and develop a notification system to ensure property owners, prospective property owners, users and workers are aware of any remaining asbestos.

Controls include the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program and Montana utility locater service, both of which will help the public learn more about any remaining asbestos on properties throughout Libby and Troy.

Another identified control is the BNSF Access Permitting Program, which requires all external individuals and organizations that wish to perform work in the railway corridor to first apply for access. Any approved access permit applications will be returned to the permittee, along with a manual that provides information on how to guard against potential exposure to any remaining asbestos.

The plan notes that “site conditions and the effectiveness of any institutional controls finalized for OU6 will be regularly evaluated to ensure continued protection of public health and the environment.”

The control plan, which can be found on the EPA’s website, represents one of the final legs in the cleanup process for the corridor. There are a total of eight operable units at the superfund site, each of which is in a different stage of the EPA cleanup process.

Some of the units, such as those that encompass the old export plant and Stimson Lumber Mill, have already been partially deleted from the National Priorities List, a sign that cleanup is complete.

But decontamination measures at other units, including the one that encompasses the W.R. Grace mine itself, won’t wrap up for another few years still, according to the EPA’s website.

CLEANUP EFFORTS in Libby have been underway since the late 1990s.

It wasn’t until July 2020 that the EPA finally transferred oversight and responsibility for much of the project to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The handoff was a sign that decontamination efforts are in the final stretch, though endeavors to raise awareness of the harms of Libby Amphibole Asbestos will continue for years to come.

One recent effort, according to a Tuesday news release, includes a bipartisan attempt by Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester to pass a resolution designating April 2021 as National Asbestos Awareness Week.

The resolution aims to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, and used the U.S. Surgeon General to teach Americans about the risks of asbestos exposure.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com