(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
I would like to begin today’s hearing by remembering my good friend Les Skramstad, a vermiculite miner from Libby, Montana.
I first met Les in the year 2000 at a home in Libby, shortly after news reports attributed hundreds of deaths to asbestos exposure from decades of vermiculite mining by the W.R. Grace Company in the town of Libby in the northwest corner of my state. Over coffee and huckleberry pie, Les watched me closely. He was wary and came up to me after his neighbors had finished telling me their stories.
Les said to me, “Senator, a lot of people have come to Libby and told us they would help, then they leave and we never hear from them again.”
That night I told Les that I would do all that I could. That I wouldn’t back down. That I wouldn’t give up. Les accepted my offer and then pointed his finger and said to me, “I’ll be watching, Senator.”
After that day, Les and I became friends. I relied on his counsel, his straightforward take on what was happening in Libby. I shined a national spotlight on Libby not just for Les, but for all the residents of Libby, and for that matter any community wronged by greed. I’m sorry to say that Les passed away from asbestos related disease in January of 2007.
But I have not forgotten his words. I haven’t forgotten Les. I never will. I keep a photograph of Les on my desk to remind me of the promise I made to Les and the people of Libby.
Today’s oversight hearing on EPA’s cleanup of Libby is a reminder to EPA that I am watching, and my colleagues in the Senate are watching. Over the course of the last year Chairman Boxer and I have conducted an investigation of EPA’s failure to declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby. We have detailed our findings in a report that will be released today.
What we have found is a pattern of intervention from OMB, the White House, and political appointees at EPA that undermined cleanup efforts at Libby, delayed necessary toxicity studies, prevented a Public Health Emergency declaration, and ultimately left the people of Libby—people like my friend Les—exposed to dangerous amphibole asbestos with no long term medical care.
EPA and OMB have played fast and loose with the facts and the law. They have put saving money over saving lives. They have failed the people of Libby. And I am outraged.
EPA’s own documents show that a public health emergency exists in Libby. Over 200 people have died, and over 1000 more are sick. No other Superfund site in the country has seen this kind of devastation. In the words of an EPA Region 8 attorney, “EPA rarely finds health problems of the magnitude of those found in Libby. If a precedent is to be set in using this section of CERCLA [to declare a public health emergency], Libby is an appropriate place to do so.”
EPA Region 8 staff, the folks on the ground, wanted to do the right thing. By February of 2002, Region 8 staff determined that the only way to fully address the devastating health effects of asbestos exposure in Libby, provide a mechanism for health care, and legally remove asbestos tainted Zonolite Attic Insulation from people’s homes was to declare a Public Health Emergency.
Section 104(A)(3)(B) and (4) of CERCLA prohibits EPA from responding to the release of contaminants “from products which are part of the structure of, and result in exposure within, residential building…” Unless it “constitutes a public health emergency.”
Our findings show that top level officials at EPA, including then Administrator Whitman appear to have approved of the plan to declare a Public Health Emergency. EPA staff prepared briefing materials for Administrator Whitman and drafted press releases announcing a Public Health Emergency declaration. And as Commissioner Roose will testify later in this hearing, Administrator Whitman herself committed to declare a Public Health Emergency at a town hall meeting in Libby.
Tragically for the people of Libby, the plan to declare a public health emergency was derailed following a top level meeting on April 16th of 2002 between EPA, OMB, CEQ, and the White House.
Concurrent with this meeting, EPA’s Office of General Council at the direction of the Administrator’s Office developed a different legal theory for allowing EPA to remove some Zonolite Attic Insulation without declaring a Public Health Emergency. Under this legal theory, EPA claimed that the insulation in homes in Libby was not actually a product because W.R. Grace had given away waste vermiculite, which residents put in their attics instead of store-bought insulation.
There was no factual basis for this claim. In fact, it’s completely bogus. An attorney in EPA Region 8 noted, “there is nothing in our record to indicate that these ‘giveaways’ were put in people’s attics.”
The political appointees at EPA, OMB, and the White House ignored officials on the ground, ignored the law, and ignored the health needs of Libby. Had EPA declared a Public Health Emergency, the residents of Libby would have been entitled to medical care. They would have been provided with basic help – like oxygen, which many residents need but cannot afford. Section 104 of CERCLA states:
“said Administrator [of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] shall--…(D) in the case of public health emergencies caused by exposure to toxic substances, provide medical care and testing to exposed individuals, including but not limited to tissue sampling… epidemiological studies, or any other assistance appropriate under the circumstances.”
The effects of EPA and OMB’s decision reaches far beyond Libby. Zonolite Attic Insulation produced from Libby vermiculite is in an estimated 33 million homes in North America. While EPA has made limited attempts to inform homeowners of the dangers of Zonolite Attic Insulation by posting information on the EPA website, EPA has never put in place a comprehensive plan to address this threat to millions of families. A Public Health Emergency declaration in Libby could have changed this. As one EPA scientist stated:
“EPA was going to let people know, but they were changed from their direction. A Public Health Emergency definitely would have helped--- it would have provided media and public attention. Without a Public Health Emergency, asbestos has not become a public health issue. That’s the politics of asbestos.”
I’m outraged at the findings of this investigation. The government has failed us in Libby. EPA and OMB’s asbestos politics must end. It is too late for my friend Les Skramstad and hundreds of other Libby residents, but EPA can still do the right thing. A Public Health Emergency is still needed in Libby to provide the residents with the adequate health care they deserve. It is time for EPA to listen to its own scientists and attorneys and declare a Public Health Emergency in Libby.