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Asbestos found in rivers near the Libby mine

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators and W.R. Grace & Co. executives are reportedly scrambling to come up with a plan to stop further contamination of several Montana rivers after EPA tests showed that many of the waterways contain dangerous levels of asbestos. However, because much less is known about the dangers to people, animals and wildlife from asbestos that is ingested than from asbestos that is inhaled, it will likely be some time before a solution is found.

Until about 20 years ago, W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine near the town of Libby, Montana. When it was in operation, the mine released asbestos dust throughout the town, causing an estimated 2,100 people to be diagnosed with mesothelioma. Approximately 400 of the Libby residents who contracted the disease ultimately died from it.

Although the mine has been closed for two decades, it continues to cause harm to the residents of Libby. Most recently, EPA tests have shown that the Kootenai River and several connected waterways are highly contaminated with asbestos. For example, a May test of nearby Rainy Creek showed that there were 55 million fibers per liter of water, well above the federal drinking water health standard of 7 million fibers per liter.

While neither Rainy Creek nor the Kootenai is the drinking water source for Libby, the amount of asbestos present in the waterways could pose serious danger to residents that live along them, as well as to area wildlife. Now, the EPA and W.R. Grace are working to assess the potential damage and come up with a solution before anyone else is exposed to asbestos in any way. We will continue to update our blog as this story develops.

Source: Great Falls Tribune, "Asbestos-tainted water spurs Libby mine cleanup talks," Matthew Brown, Nov. 27, 2011

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