Response outlined for wildfires at vermiculite mine site

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The West Fork fire as photographed Friday evening from a vantage point on Bobtail Road about a mile north of Milton Drive. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

A new emergency response plan for wildfires at or near the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine got a test run during the recent fire season, even though the West Fork Fire was some 6 miles away from the mine site.

The Libby Asbestos Response Plan, finalized in late June, is the result of a years-long effort by government agencies at the local, state and national level. It outlines a framework for agency collaboration and response in the event of a wildfire in Operable Unit 3 of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site — a 10,000-acre site that includes the vermiculite mine and surrounding forested area.

Toxic asbestos exposure from the defunct mine has sickened thousands and killed hundreds of people in the Libby area.

“The West Fork Fire was a ways away from OU3, but we used it as an opportunity to talk about the plan,” said Jennifer McCully, public health manager of the Lincoln County Health Department. “We used it as a practice exercise.”

Christina Progess, Superfund project manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said it was “a helpful test run as far as the communication side.

“It went pretty well. We were pleased with the level of coordination,” she said.

As part of the EPA’s investigation related to asbestos exposure from the defunct mine, the agency looked at the risks posed by asbestos in forested land, Progess said, and collected data during a prescribed burn in 2015 that provided insight about asbestos exposure first responders would face.

“Firefighters are exposed to higher levels because they’re digging in dirt and ash,” she said about fires that could occur near the mine. “Commercial loggers working near the mine raise to that level, too. That’s another dust-creating [activity].

“Firefighters can experience elevated exposures to asbestos when engaged in firefighting activities near the mine,” Progess said.

The EPA, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Forest Service and W.R. Grace are evaluating strategies for reducing these exposures as part of the final cleanup strategy for OU3, she added.

In the event of a wildfire at the mine, the majority of asbestos is likely to remain in the ash, Progess said, though it would be “kicked up” during firefighting activity.

Nate Gassmann, the district ranger for the Forest Service’s Libby unit, said it’s important for people to know that there is a plan in place to deal with wildfire incidents in OU3.

“Having everyone at the table at one time helps,” he said about the collaboration among government agencies.

The amount of information the EPA has been able to collect since the magnitude of the asbestos exposure came to light in 1999 has brought agencies to where they are today in terms of the response framework outlined in the Libby Asbestos Response Plan, Gassmann said.

Progess said that given the data collected to date, government agencies don’t anticipate problems with the levels of asbestos in smoke during a wildfire in OU3, “but we have this plan to monitor for asbestos in the ambient air to evaluate actual concentrations and determine at that point if there is a concern.”

The state DEQ would be involved in evaluating any exposures outside of Lincoln County, such as the Flathead Valley, Progess said.

“This fire season taught us a lot,” she said. “We look to incorporate that into a revised plan. We’ll continue to improve it as we can. It’s a living document.”

Participating agencies, which include the Forest Service, Lincoln County, EPA and state DNRC and DEQ, will hold table-top exercises or a “dry run” prior to next year’s fire season.

“That’s helpful for all parties,” Progess said.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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