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EPA still studying asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine cleanup

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, used in many industrial products, including heating and cooling insulation, on pipe and electrical systems, for roofing materials, flooring and as a component of brakes. Asbestos was mined directly and is sometimes found with other mineral mining, like vermiculite. In the United States, the largest source of vermiculite was a mine in Libby, Montana, which at one time supplied 80 percent of the world's vermiculite.

The vermiculite in Libby contained a toxic form of asbestos called tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers. Not only were workers in the mine contaminated with toxic dust, but the city also received the 'gift' of vermiculite from the mine, and it was distributed to playgrounds and gardens throughout the city.

The EPA eventually named the town a Superfund site and instituted a cleanup that has cost more than $447 million. The agency is still working on a risk study to determine how much longer the cleanup will require. Scientist recently reported that the asbestos dust from the town is dangerous, even in very small quantities.

The number of deaths from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is estimated at 400 and a $43 million settlement for 1,128 asbestos victims was approved last year. The last owner of the mine, W.R. Grace and Co. would pay $19.5 million of that amount to provide the Libby Medical Trust Fund.

The mine closed in 1990, but because of the widespread exposure to asbestos dust and the long incubation period for symptoms of mesothelioma, new cases of the disease could appear for years to come, and it is essential for worker and residents to have access to a stable fund to ensure they can obtain medical treatment.

Source: Claims Journal, "Scientists Back EPA on Libby Asbestos Risks," Mathew Brown, February 11, 2013

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