Congressional investigators will hammer the Environmental Protection Agency in a soon-to-be-released report for its flawed examination and cleanup of hundreds of factories that once processed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite into insulation.
But public health specialists say the investigation ignores an even greater failure: the EPA's refusal to adequately warn millions of homeowners that they may be exposed to cancer-causing asbestos in that insulation.
The Government Accountability Office conducted the investigation for Congress. The report, expected to be made public later this month, will say that the EPA's examination of sites in Spokane, Portland and 264 other communities that processed ore from Libby, Mont., used outdated criteria and underestimated or completely missed the dangers to people who worked there or lived nearby.
But the report will not address the EPA's failure to warn homeowners about the risks they face from the insulation.
"It is unconscionable that EPA would not inform the American public of the danger they live with by having this potentially lethal material in their homes," said Dr. Richard Lemen, former assistant U.S. Surgeon General, and acting director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
The hazard from exposure to the tremolite asbestos contaminating the vermiculite insulation is well known, Lemen said, "and for EPA to basically keep it a secret from homeowners for all these years is outrageous."
The ore and the finished vermiculite product were sold by W.R. Grace & Co., often under the brand name Zonolite.
It's impossible to know how many homes contain insulation made from the ore. The government and lawyers who have brought a class-action lawsuit against Grace use a formula that calculates the peak years of Zonolite sales, the percentage of the market those sales represented and the number of homes built during that period.
In Washington state, 230,000 to 300,000 homes fall into that matrix, out of as many as 35 million nationwide.
"The EPA knows that people throughout the country continue to encounter this dangerous insulation in their day-to-day activities," said Dr. Aubrey Miller, a U.S. Public Health Service physician.
For eight years, he has worked with the EPA team investigating hazards of the asbestos in the insulation.
"Kids continue to play in it," Miller said. "Workers continue to work in it. Residents continue to be exposed to it and few, if any, have a clue of the hazardous nature of this material.
"For years scientists have documented that the most minor movement, slightest disruption of this Zonolite insulation will unleash millions of fibers into the air. For the child playing in the attic or the cable or telephone installer, or anyone doing renovations, the risks are enormous."
Keven McDermott, manager of EPA's Environmental Services Unit for the Pacific Northwest region, says she continues to get calls asking about the safety of the insulation, seven years after her office did the first analysis of the risks posed by consumer products made with ore from Libby.
"This tells me that as an agency we have not done enough to educate the public about the hazards of Libby vermiculite, especially the insulation," she said. "I feel sick at heart when a young father tells me he just rewired his house, crawling through the vermiculite insulation in his attic day after day, tracking dust and asbestos throughout his home.
"When I explain about the asbestos in Libby vermiculite, there is a stunned silence. He wonders out loud what harm he may have done his family — and himself.
"We have got to get the word out that they need to take precautions when they work around vermiculite attic insulation."
Almost everything related to the Libby ore and how it's to be dealt with has been mired in a quagmire of national politics, well-funded asbestos industry lobbyists and White House meddling.
The Justice Department has filed serious criminal charges against Grace and seven of its top executives for concealing the dangers of the ore it mined and sold. After two years of postponements, the trial may begin early next year.
In 2002, then-EPA Administrator Christy Todd Whitman agreed with her team of scientists and physicians working in Libby that a "Public Health Emergency" should be declared because of the severe toxicity of the asbestos contamination in the insulation. The declaration would have authorized and provided money for intensified health studies that would quantify the threat from the Libby asbestos, expand the cleanup of the town and the homes, and conduct an extensive publicity campaign to notify homeowners and workers of the dangers from exposure to Zonolite.
Thousands of pages of e-mails, letters and reports document intense efforts from the White House to block the declaration, especially the part that would require the government to tell millions of homeowners that they could be living with a toxic threat in their attic and walls.
In May 2003, EPA said it was launching a "national consumer awareness campaign to provide homeowners with important information on vermiculite attic insulation which may contain asbestos."
It promised extensive television and radio ads, a "blitz" of appearances on national and local news show, the distribution of "tens of thousands" of posters and warning brochures in home improvement stores.
It never happened.
In August, Sen. Max Baucus brought current EPA Administrator Steven Johnson to Libby for a hearing on why EPA headquarters thwarted efforts to institute the emergency declaration. When the Montana Democrat threatened to subpoena the documents showing what happened, Johnson agreed to provide them.
For decades, millions of pounds of the shiny vermiculite ore was shipped from Libby to processing plants throughout North America. High capacity ovens transformed the vermiculite into featherweight, silvery fluff used in scores of consumer and construction products from potting soil to insulation.
Grace documents show that the bulk of residential Zonolite sales were north of a line running from northern California through Denver and St. Louis to Philadelphia. Marketing, production and sales reports obtained by the government show heavy concentrations of Zonolite sold throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California and in Canada.
Exposure to tremolite asbestos in Libby caused asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer among the miners, their family members and people who lived in town but had no direct connection to the mine.
Hundreds have died and government testing has found that thousands of other people who live or worked near Libby have signs of the disease.
The Seattle P-I disclosed the deaths in Libby eight years ago. Within months government health specialists involved with the victims of the Grace mine insisted that the toxicity of the tremolite that contaminated the vermiculite was alarmingly different, but it continues to fall under the same government regulations and tolerances established for the less lethal chrysotile form of asbestos.
Grace said it stopped producing the insulation in the late 1980s and most of its sites had been sold to other businesses. EPA investigators say the new owners of former processing plants may not have known that tons of asbestos-contaminated waste may have been buried on the property or was clinging to dust-covered rafters.
EPA headquarters told its regional offices to determine how many sites were contaminated. Some regions did elaborate sampling of soil, air and dust. Others did "windshield surveys" without leaving their car. Some regional offices did nothing.
"Based on thes
e evaluations, 19 sites were found to be contaminated … and needed to be cleaned," the GAO will report. But, it noted, in evaluating the sites EPA used a decades-old "1 percent rule," which said an area was "safe" if the asbestos found didn't exceed 1 percent.
For years many scientists and physicians from EPA and the National Centers for Disease Control were largely ignored by agency chiefs when they argued that the 1 percent threshold was just an arbitrary number that industry supported.
As to the insulation in homes, EPA has posted a warning on its Web site and produced a pamphlet that will be sent to anyone who asks.
Said Miller, the Public Health Service physician:
"This is not how a public health crisis should be handled."