For the first time in the history of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA has declared its first public health emergency under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) at the Libby asbestos site in northwest Montana.

A decade after the EPA first got involved at the W.R. Grace Vermiculite mine in Libby, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson Wednesday announced that she decided that conditions at the site present a significant threat to public health and that making a public health emergency determination is appropriate.

It has been estimated that 1,200 Libby residents died or developed cancer or lung disease related to the mine which contained deadly tremolite asbestos, which has been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer that can attack the lungs, abdomen or heart.

The mine closed in 1990 and was placed on EPA’s Superfund list in 2002.

W.R. Grace and several current and former executives were acquitted last month of criminal charges in the asbestos contamination by a federal court jury.  The U.S. Justice Department had claimed the company and its executives knowingly decided to release the asbestos and reportedly had tried to hide its dangers from mine employees and Libby residents.

“This is a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long. We’re making a long-delayed commitment to the people of Libby and Troy,” Jackson said. “Based on a rigorous re-evaluation of the situation, we will continue to move aggressively on the cleanup efforts and protect the health of the town.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has ordered two of her agencies-the Health Resources and Service Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry-to help county residents. Local officials are currently putting together a grant proposal that will lay out options for medical care that will work for the residents of Lincoln County.

Montana Senator Jon Tester said, “This is a long-overdue, common-sense decision that will go a long way for Libby and the thousands of folks who were poisoned there. This finding will make quality health care more accessible, and it will finally cut the red tape that’s been getting in the way.”

Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, called the EPA designation a crowning moment in his decade-long fight to bring justice to folks in Libby. “This is a town that was poisoned by W.R. Grace, then had to wait year after year as the last administration failed to determine that (a) public health emergency exists.”

“Today is the day after years of work we were able to succeed in getting this done. Yet, we won’t stop here. We will continue to push until Libby has a clean bill of health,” he added.