The EPA team that arrived to deal with Libby's situation in late 1999 had the heroic sheen of scientist-cowboys, come to rescue the town from its plight. The EPA remains, but it has come to assume a workaday presence as it tries to get to the end of what can seem to be a bottomless problem. Mike Cirian, an engineer and the on-site manager for the EPA's Libby work, has been in town since 2005. "This isn't your typical cleanup," he said. "It's an entire community. People live in it." The boundaries of the cleanup encompass approximately 180 square miles. Close to one-third of Libby's properties were found to have vermiculite in their soil; air tests determined that gardening, mowing lawns, and using leaf-blowers were hazardous activities. According to Cirian, the EPA has decontaminated 1,600 residences, at a rate of 130 to 150 a year. It has removed 25,000 cubic yards of vermiculite insulation and 1.2 million tons of soil. The air in downtown Libby had 10,000 times as much asbestos in it when the EPA arrived as it does now. In 2008, the EPA negotiated a settlement of $250 million, its largest ever from a polluter, from W.R. Grace. Still, the agency has spent that and more in Libby – $420 million so far – and it no longer knows when its job will be done.
Cirian drove me around to show me some of the EPA's work. We passed an old Victorian house that had broad tubing running from its exterior to ventilation machinery on the lawn. We passed a row of three bungalows. "Did that one, did that one, did that one," Cirian said. At the edge of downtown, he steered his truck toward a large, muddy field, buzzing with heavy equipment, on the banks of the Kootenai River. After years of dispute, Libby and the EPA had agreed to reclaim this land for a 17-acre riverfront park to open this summer. It is the former site of the contaminated ball fields, where generations of Libby's children had played.