The United States Environmental Protection Service (EPA) and the U.S. Forest Service have decided to hire 10 permanent firefighters to be stationed near the site of the worst occupational environmental contamination site in the country, fearing that summer fires might stir up asbestos fibers at the former W. R. Grace and Company vermiculite mine in the town of Libby, Montana.
According to information released by the EPA, the government is extremely concerned about what could happen at the site if dry conditions caused even a small fire to ignite at the minesite. Nate Gassmann, District Ranger for Libby, which is located near the Canadian border, said having a team located in the area is critical to containing the threat of airborne asbestos and he wholly supports the idea of placing permanent firefighters in a spot where fires can be detected and fought immediately.
An article in the Insurance Journal points out that an asbestos release could not only harm fire personnel who would be called on to fight such a blaze but may also present a risk to those who live in and around the town of Libby.
“A test burn showed that a fire in that area would expose firefighters to asbestos at well above the risk target set by the EPA,” said Christina Progress, the remedial project manager for the Superfund cleanup at the mine.
The vermiculite in the mine was long used to make W. R. Grace’s Zonolite® brand insulation, but the mineral was tainted by asbestos. Grace officials knew of the presence of the toxin but continued to allow products to be made from the vermiculite, unnecessarily exposing workers, locals, and consumers to asbestos.
Now, concerned with the effects of asbestos exposure, the Forest Service is having difficulty finding firefighters that want to take on the job. They believe they may have to look outside the agency to find those willing to assume the risk. The EPA admits that it’s a veritable crap shoot as far as the amount of risk that might be realized by those who step up to the plate.
“There’s so many variables that would factor into it, from wind to topography to the relative humidity,” Progress explained. “We don’t have any way of understanding what the concentrations would be to residents in Libby but the best way to minimize exposure is to prepare to stop a fire.”
There’s no way to tell exactly how many people have been affected by the asbestos disaster in Libby, but it is clear that it ranks up there with other horrendous environmental disasters, like New York’s Love Canal fiasco of the 1970s. An official count in 2012 had number of deaths at more than 400, but new generations of Libby area residents continue to develop asbestos-related diseases due to exposure.
One reason is because W.R. Grace used to donate asbestos tailings to schools for use in playgrounds and to homeowners for use in their gardens. As such, countless individuals may still be at risk for diseases like mesothelioma. It’ll be years before the true consequences can be measured.