Federal contractors dressed in protective suits used heavy equipment Wednesday to scrape up asbestos-contaminated soil at two Albuquerque sites where fireproof insulation was manufactured for decades.
Others are raising questions about the health of former employees at those plants and the whereabouts of some 68,000 tons of asbestos-tainted vermiculite imported to New Mexico from 1967 to 1988 for use as home insulation.
The product, sold under brand names that include Zonalite and Texas Vermiculite, was widely used in New Mexico to insulate walls and attics, said Charles Perea, who heads a New Mexico foundation dedicated to increasing public awareness of the health risks of asbestos.
“It was commonly used in construction,” said Perea, founder of the Johnny O. Perea Foundation. The product resembles tiny chips of gray or brown bark or ash cinders, he said. “I can peek into an attic with a flashlight and recognize it.”
Environmental Protection Agency contractors this week began removing up to 5,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the former Silico Inc. plant at 5119 Edith NE. Workers on Saturday began removing 1,000 cubic yards of soil from a smaller site at 1822 First NE formerly used by the Southwest Vermiculite Co.
Workers will wrap the soil in plastic and truck it to a landfill near Mountainair for disposal, said Mike McAteer, the EPA’s on-site coordinator.
EPA contractors also plan to power wash businesses near the cleanup sites to rid the interiors of asbestos. He estimated the total cost of both projects at $900,000.
The plants received the minerals by rail from the W.R. Grace mine in Libby, Mont., which shipped tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite to plants across the nation, McAteer said. The mine closed in 1990.
Vermiculite from the Libby mine contains high levels of asbestos, which is dangerous if inhaled. Asbestos related illnesses include asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer.
At greatest risk of asbestos exposure were employees who worked at the plants and loaded and unloaded the vermiculite ore from the Libby mine, McAteer said.
“I have no doubt there would have been fiber getting kicked up during this loading operation,” McAteer said. He recommended anyone who believes he or she may have been exposed to asbestos to contact a health provider.
Bernalillo County environmental health officials plan to identify employees who worked at the plants and notify them about potential health risks, Kitty Richards, an agency program manager, said at a public meeting Tuesday.
The EPA posts information about asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation at http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/verm.html. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information specific to Libby asbestos at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal