Initial test results show only low levels of asbestos contamination in piles of wood chips and bark that were widely used for landscaping in a northwest Montana town where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure, federal regulators said Thursday.
Low levels of asbestos were found in two of six wood chip samples taken from the grounds of a shuttered sawmill in the small town of Libby, said Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Deborah McKean.
McKean described the initial results as promising but said more test results were needed to determine the human health risk.
The Associated Press reported in July that more than 15,000 tons of the chips and bark were sold or distributed and much of that material shipped across the country despite evidence it contained an unknown level of asbestos.
Samples of the wood chips and bark were first collected in 2007, and subsequent tests found asbestos in four of 20 samples analyzed under an electron microscope. The EPA at the time did not attempt to quantify how much asbestos was present.
Until this spring, residents and city officials in Libby routinely used the wood chips and bark for landscaping projects and erosion control. The material was also shipped out of Libby for use as fuel pellets and decorative bark that was packaged and sold by major retailers.
The two samples that tested positive in the agency's latest analysis also were collected in 2007 but had been archived. They showed levels of asbestos that were "orders of magnitude" lower than the 1 percent threshold set by the EPA for the sale of commercial products, McKean said.
But Libby city councilman D.C. Orr said Thursday that the latest test results did not answer questions about how the EPA allowed the material to be removed from a designated Superfund site and spread around Libby for years despite the inconclusive 2007 test results.
"At this point I don't think the EPA has any credibility," Orr said.
The EPA stopped the sales of the wood chips and bark in March after local residents raised concerns and the AP began investigating the matter.
McKean said the EPA does not want sales of the material to resume until it gets more definitive results. The bark and wood chip were sold by a local economic development official, Paul Rummelhart.
"We are still in a hold situation for him not to sell that material," McKean said.
Rummelhart said Thursday he had no immediate plans to sell or use more of the material.
"Until we're satisfied from that agency that it's a safe product to use, it's still out of bounds," he said.
She declined to offer the precise amount of asbestos found because the results still were being validated.
Health officials say the asbestos in Libby is more potent than asbestos found elsewhere. A draft EPA risk assessment released last month said the slightest trace of fibers can cause illness if inhaled.
Over the last decade, the EPA has spent more than $370 million cleaning up asbestos released by a W.R. Grace vermiculite mine near the town.