News : Doing asbestos they can 

Big Tex waits, but the adjacent hike-and-bike trail is a go

Southtown residents are questioning the safety of construction on the Eagleland/River Walk Link hike-and-bike-trail site, which lies just south of the former Big Tex plant owned by developer James Lifshutz. Citizens have opposed Lifshutz’s plans to build residences and retail shops at Big Tex because they fear the site, formerly a W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing facility, is contaminated with asbestos from a notorious Libby, Montana, mine. `See “Big Tex lives to fight another day,” February 15-21, 2006, “Big runaround,” February 8-14, 2006.`

In March, Lifshutz and the city agreed that the Big Tex project would not proceed until the Environmental Protection Agency assesses the land and issues a recommendation. At the end of April, the EPA notified residents that it will return in mid-June with a plan for sampling and testing.

Community members say they want to know why construction on the trail is proceeding while Big Tex waits for the EPA.

“The hike-and-bike trail is occurring basically right along the fence line where all of the asbestos is,” says Margarita Maldonado, who lives across the river from Big Tex. Maldonado said she was surprised when she noticed city trucks moving dirt at the hike-and-bike trail site in late May, and contacted District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle.

“We have been informed that the people working on the land have done asbestos testing and have not found asbestos,” Radle told the Current. “We are supposed to have another public hearing after they have done an analysis on the samples.”

Larry Davis, of the City’s Capital Programs division, and Monica Ramos, administrative services manager with the Public Works department, confirmed that asbestos testing has been completed on the trail site.

“There is no danger whatsoever,” said Ramos. “The level of asbestos that was discovered was way below EPA standards.” In a separate interview, she added that the Environmental Services department was completing “remediation” first, and that construction will officially begin in early to mid June.

“It’s my understanding that that is just kind of standard ... prepping,” she added.

David Newman, manager of the City’s Environmental Services Department, could not be reached for comment.

Lifshutz, who maintains that there is no danger from asbestos at the Big Tex site, said he doubts there is asbestos contamination on the hike-and-bike-trail site, either.

“I’m an advocate for river improvements and I’m glad to see they are starting `the project`,” he said.

Lifshutz paid for private asbestos-testing at Big Tex, and those results showed negligible contamination, but neighborhood critics contend that the testing methods used were inadequate for detecting the Libby asbestos, which is more finely grained and more toxic.

Radle says she is still uneasy.

“As far as how much they tested and how far they went, I don’t know,” she says. “I need to be assured so that I can reassure the community.”

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