Hazardous Materials:

Status of EPA's Efforts to Assess Sites That May Have Received Asbestos-Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana

GAO-09-6R: Published: Mar 10, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 2009.

Additional Materials:

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In October 2007, we reported on how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies had assessed and addressed risks at sites that were thought to have received asbestos-contaminated ore from a mine located in Libby, Montana, and the overall results of these efforts. As we noted at that time, EPA has identified hundreds of sites nationwide that are thought to have received millions of tons of the contaminated ore between 1923 and the early 1990s. This report provides information that will be helpful in understanding the site descriptions in the database, which is provided in a separate report, entitled Hazardous Materials: EPA's Assessment of Sites That May Have Received Asbestos- Contaminated Ore from Libby, Montana (GAO-09-7SP).

For each of the sites that EPA had identified, the database provides available information on the site's location, how much ore was shipped to the site, and the type of facility that operated at the site, as well as whether EPA visited the site and conducted sampling and what EPA's evaluation showed. The data on the amount of ore received are based on an EPA database of W.R. Grace invoices for shipments of vermiculite ore from the Libby mine between 1964 and 1990. EPA does not believe it has an invoice for every shipment of ore that was made during this time; the database represents only the invoices EPA was able to collect. For about 28 percent of the sites that are in the database, the amount of ore received is unknown. For these reasons, the information on the number of sites receiving the contaminated ore and the amount of ore received is likely to be understated. The vermiculite ore mined in Libby contained high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos. At some of the facilities that received Libby ore, manufacturing processes--to produce such products as building insulation, fireproofing material, and some gardening products--released the asbestos into the air. Some workers and others who inhaled the asbestos fibers developed serious, in some cases fatal, asbestos-related respiratory illnesses. As we reported in October 2007, EPA began to clean up asbestos contamination in the Libby area in 2000 and to identify and evaluate those sites that received the ore to determine if they were contaminated. As of January 2009, with the assistance of other federal and state agencies, EPA had evaluated 266 sites thought to have received the asbestos-contaminated ore from the Libby mine, conducted sampling at 82 sites, and determined that 21 needed to be cleaned up (removal actions). However, as we reported in October 2007, EPA used cleanup standards for the sites that were not health-based, and it had not completed an assessment for determining the toxicity of the asbestos in the Libby ore. We also found that the sampling and analysis techniques that EPA used at some of the sites were limited, and advances in technology have since led to the development of more accurate methods. EPA has initiated plans to complete an assessment of the toxicity and associated risks of Libby asbestos by the end of fiscal year 2010.

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