By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday declared its first-ever "public health emergency," saying the federal government will funnel $6 million to provide medical care for people sickened by asbestos from a mine in northwest Montana.
The declaration applies to the towns of Libby and Troy, where for decades workers dug for vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation. They were unknowingly poisoning themselves: The vermiculite was contaminated with a toxic form of asbestos, which workers carried home on their clothes.
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are 500 people with asbestos-related illnesses such as lung cancer and asbestosis in the two towns, whose populations total about 3,900.
A spokeswoman for the department said 50 new cases are diagnosed every year, including some in workers' relatives and children who never set foot in a mine.
Yesterday, the department announced that it will grant $6 million to the health authority in Lincoln County, Mont., where the towns are located. That money is intended to pay for residents' health care, officials said; it will pay what insurance won't, and cover the full medical tabs for those without insurance.
"For way too long, many here in Washington have turned a blind eye to the needs of the residents in Libby," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "Those days are over."
The EPA has had the power to declare a public health emergency since 1980. But agency officials said the law includes no specific criteria about what constitutes an emergency. Its main legal importance was to give the EPA power to remove materials such as insulation from buildings, they said.
The announcement comes about six weeks after a Montana jury acquitted chemical company W.R. Grace and three of its executives on charges that they withheld information about the mine's dangers. W.R. Grace ran the mine from 1963 until it closed in 1990. Vermiculite had been extracted from the site since the early 20th century, according to the EPA.
At yesterday's announcement, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told the story of a longtime mine worker from the region who died of asbestos-related problems and carried home asbestos-laden dust that sickened his wife and two children. Last fall, Baucus slammed the Bush administration for not declaring a public health emergency in the region earlier.
"I don't think anybody escaped from the exposure," Montana's other senator, Jon Tester (D), said in an interview. "Nearly every family, if not every family, that was exposed to it has some health issues."
The Department of Health and Human Services has spent $46 million in the area in the past 10 years funding diagnostic screening programs and paying to improve local health care. An agency spokeswoman said the new $6 million is intended to be funneled directly to patients.
"If something's not covered, there's a place you can go where it can be," said department spokeswoman Jenny Backus. She said it is not clear what funding would be given to the program after this year.