KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

EPA Declares First-Ever Public Health Emergency In Montana

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday declared its first-ever "public health emergency" for asbestos contamination near the mining towns of Libby and Troy in northwest Montana, the Associated Press reports. "Asbestos contamination from a now-closed vermiculite mine has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people and illnesses of thousands more. Before the vermiculite mine was closed in 1990, miners carried asbestos home on their clothes. Vermiculite once covered school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens."

The AP reports that the Obama administration said Wednesday it will pump more than $130 million into a Montana town where asbestos contamination has been blamed for more than 200 deaths. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the news will not result in an evacuation of Libby's 2,600 residents, but will require an extensive, home-by-home cleanup and better health protections for those with asbestos-related illnesses. The EPA will invest at least $125 million over the next five years in the ongoing clean up of Libby and Troy, Mont., a nearby town of about 1,000. The Health and Human Services Department will spend an additional $6 million on medical assistance for area residents suffering from asbestos-related illnesses."

The announcement was "the first time the EPA has made such a determination under authority of the 1980 Superfund law that requires the clean up of contaminated sites... The EPA had previously declared the area a Superfund site, but had not determined there was a public health emergency until Wednesday." Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., praised the emergency declaration. He had previously criticized the Bush administration for not taking action and "called the health announcement especially welcome, given what he called a disappointing verdict last month in a criminal case related to the asbestos contamination" involving W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives (Daly, 6/17).

The Washington Post reports that the federal government will provide $6 million to the health authority in Lincoln County, Mont., to pay for residents' health care, noting that it "will pay what insurance won't, and cover the full medical tabs for those without insurance." The paper reports: "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 (Fahrenthold, 6/18).

The New York Times also reports that vermiculite is "chemically inert, fire-resistant, lightweight and odorless, it was once widely used in insulation that was typically poured loosely between attic floor joists or between wall studs" (Dean, 6/17).

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