Mr. Chairman, Senator Jeffords, thank-you for calling this hearing today to consider the nomination of Michael Leavitt to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
This is an important nomination, to an agency that should set the gold standard for protecting the public’s health and their environment. Lately, the EPA has struggled to set that standard, reaching a low point when former Administrator Christie Whitman stepped down early this summer. I believe Ms. Whitman tried hard to be faithful to the mission of the EPA; she certainly always responded well to requests I made of her for my constituents in Montana.
But, I don’t think that Ms. Whitman received the support she needed and deserved from the Administration. I admire and respect her decision to step down.
Which is why I’ve told Mr. Leavitt that I’m not quite sure why he wants this job. But, I take him at his word that he will stand firm and honor the commitments he makes on behalf of the EPA, to me, to this Committee or to the American people. The EPA needs someone to restore trust and accountability to the agency.
The Chairman has asked us to keep our remarks brief, so I will turn to the issue that means the most to me, and that is protecting the people of Libby, Montana.
Mr. Chairman, Governor Leavitt – people are dying in Libby. Hundreds have already died. In fact, more than 300 people are buried in Libby alone, their deaths all related to asbestos exposure that resulted from the vermiculite mining activities of WR Grace.
The EPA finally came to Libby about three years ago. Since that time, a tremendous amount of federal resources have poured into Libby, to start cleaning up WR Grace’s mess and to screen residents for asbestos-related disease.
The results of these efforts have been staggering – asbestos was and still is everywhere in Libby, in homes, gardens, driveways, even in the high school track. Additionally, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has found that people from Libby suffer from asbestos related disease at a rate that is 40-60 times the national average. They suffer from a rare asbestos-caused cancer, mesothelioma (MEE-SO-THEE-LEE-OMA), at a rate 100 times the national average.
Even though we are three years into EPA’s clean-up of Libby, only 10% of the total amount of clean-up work has been completed.
Last year, Marianne Horinko testified before this committee and promised me EPA would clean-up the town of Libby in two years, in 2004. Now, EPA tells me it will be closer to five years, maybe by 2008.
This greatly concerns me. This town is sitting on a pile of asbestos. The residents of this town were exposed to high levels of asbestos for years. Many of them, as I have already pointed out, are dead. Libby must remain a top, top priority for EPA, for funding, for staff, for resources.
The Libby project should be a prime example that EPA can point to on how Superfund protects Americans.
The investment of millions of federal dollars in Libby, Montana -- nearly $90 million to date – merits careful follow-up and focus. This project was started well; it deserves to be finished well. We can’t lose focus now.
Ever since Whitman stepped down, and the on-site coordinator, Paul Peronard, was transferred out of Libby, folks in Libby tell my staff that EPA’s attitude has shifted. EPA staff appear over-worked, and tired, lacking adequate support from Region 8 and headquarters. We have heard of dozens of examples of EPA staff acting in a less than professional manner with Libby residents. Libby, and the EPA, deserve better.
Mr. Leavitt – I ask for your commitment today to make a Libby a top priority for EPA and for you personally if you are confirmed as Administrator. That means maintaining momentum and focus on the clean-up work until the town has a clean bill of health sooner rather than later.
I also ask you to come to Montana, and to commit to meeting with EPA folks on the ground and with members of the Libby community to better understand what is needed in Libby to get the job done.
The people of Libby have suffered enough. It’s our responsibility to take that town off the National Priorities List as soon as possible.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.