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EPA plan for Montana asbestos town may leave some there

In this April 28, 2011, file photo, unidentified road workers wear protective gear against possible asbestos contamination as they load material from a road resurfacing project in downtown Libby, Mont.

AP Photo/Matthew Brown

BILLINGS, Mont. - Federal regulators' long-delayed final cleanup plan for a Montana mining town where thousands have been sickened by asbestos contamination would leave some of the deadly material where it sits, in the walls of houses, underground and elsewhere.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan released Tuesday for Libby and the neighboring town of Troy calls for asbestos-containing vermiculite to be left behind where it presents minimal risk and can be safely managed.

Yet some Libby residents worry the material eventually would escape. The plan comes more than 15 years after media reports revealed widespread illness caused by asbestos dust from a W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.

"We've left a lot of this behind in these houses, and you always have the potential of people opening up that wall and running into it," said Mike Noble, who worked for 21 years for Grace as an electrician and suffers from a lung disease caused by asbestos.

For the proposal to work, there must be enough money available in future years for local officials to provide the proper assistance to homeowners, contractors and others who might encounter vermiculite, said Noble, chairman of an EPA advisory group in Libby.

Health workers have estimated as many as 400 people have been killed and almost 3,000 sickened in the area.

An EPA research panel concluded last year that even the slightest exposure to asbestos from Libby can scar lungs and cause other health problems.

The agency so far has spent $540 million removing a million cubic yards of dirt from more than 2,000 properties, and officials say Libby's air is now much safer.

The EPA says its work to date already has made Libby much safer. Airborne asbestos concentrations in the northwest Montana community of 3,000 are now comparable to levels in other cities, according to officials.

Tuesday's proposal calls for the EPA to wrap most of its work in Libby by the end of the decade.

"We've done most of the cleanup already," said EPA Libby team leader Rebecca Thomas. "We can finish the cleanup in the next three to five years, and then the community can move on and start thinking more about economic development."

Vermiculite from the Grace mine was used as insulation in millions of houses across the U.S.

In Libby, contaminated waste from the mine was unwittingly used by many residents as a garden-soil additive and as fill for the local construction industry.