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Two years ago, in its report on the Superfund program’s failures, The Center described the “misery in Montana” — the asbestos-related sickness and death that ravaged the small town of Libby, near an abandoned vermiculite mine. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken the unprecedented step of declaring a public health emergency at the northwest Montana site — clearing the way for millions of dollars of federal medical care and research funds for the afflicted communities.

The mine, owned by W.R. Grace from 1963 until its closure in 1990, has been on the Superfund list of the nation’s worst abandoned hazardous waste sites since 2002. Documents released by Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, showed EPA officials were prepared to declare Libby a public health emergency that year, but backed down after meeting with the Bush White House. With 200 Libby residents now dead due to asbestos-related diseases resulting from exposure to vermiculite, which was used for home insulation, the Obama administration’s EPA declared the first public health emergency in the 29-year history of the Superfund program.

“We determined that we needed to step up our efforts,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced an $8 million, eight-year research program to assist the EPA in Libby, and detailed another grant expected to be finalized August 1. As for clean-up of the site, about $165 million has been spent so far, and the EPA estimates $25 million more will be required each year from now through 2013.

Gayla Benefield, a lifelong resident of Libby and founder of the now-disbanded Lincoln County Asbestos Victims Relief Organization, said in an interview with PaperTrail she was encouraged by the EPA’s actions. Benefield, who was featured in the Center’s award-winning Superfund report, Wasting Away, said her primary concern is medical research and assistance for the children in Libby who have been exposed.

“There’s so much, they’re never going to get all of it,” Benefield said of the contamination. “Absolutely never. It’s always going to be lurking, so to me it’s always made more sense to go into the medical research and make it as harmless as little kids eating dirt.”

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