Washington, DC — Citing a decision not to contest a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General (IG) has released a 2006 report revealing critical deficiencies in the agency’s clean-up of Libby, Montana, a town plagued by unprecedented exposure to an especially deadly form of asbestos.
For the past three years, the EPA–IG had refused to release the 2006 report by its Special Agent Cory Rumple describing serious public health concerns about the methods employed by EPA to remove highly dangerous vermiculite from homes within Libby. Problems outlined by the “Rumple Report” include –
- A thorough “disconnect between scientists and the agency” over how to conduct the clean-up;
- Distribution of “exceptionally deceiving” public health information to Libby residents. These so-called “comfort letters” were characterized as riddled with “untruths”; and
- Bitter in-fighting within the EPA that led to dysfunctional decisions and resignations of key specialists.
“Libby represents one of the most serious public health situations EPA has confronted but it appears that this agency is not close to being up to the task,” stated PEER Executive Jeff Ruch. “This report raises more questions than it answers, including why it was hidden from the public.”
Besides the secrecy about unresolved public health questions, PEER points to a critical issue involving the decisions of the EPA–IG. Despite Agent Rumple’s clear conclusion that the Libby problems did not constitute criminal misconduct (“additional criminal investigation is unwarranted”), the IG opened a 21-month criminal investigation anyway which resulted in a referral that was declined by federal prosecutors. That lengthy criminal probe supplanted Rumple’s main request that the identified lapses be thoroughly analyzed by the OIG Office of Program Evaluation.
“As a result of the Inspector General pursuing a fruitless criminal inquiry, today we still do not have a clear idea of whether the Libby clean-up is protective of the public,” Ruch added. “Nor do we have any assurances that EPA will not repeat the same mistakes tomorrow.”
This quick resolution of the PEER lawsuit was the first indication that the pledges by President Obama and Attorney General Holder of a new openness and presumption of disclosure in administering the Freedom of Information Act will be honored.
“We are encouraged that the Freedom of Information Act may become an even more powerful tool for government accountability,” remarked PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who filed the lawsuit. “We have many more dirty bureaucratic closets that we intend to air out.”