Fire Near Vermiculite Mine Causes Asbestos Concerns
As fires continue to plague America’s northern and northwestern states, officials are beginning to worry about one particular blaze that is approaching the W. R. Grace and Company vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, concerned that – if the fire does encroach on the property – asbestos fibers could spread throughout the area.
The West Fork Fire, which is burning in an area just northwest of Libby, is the culprit and is the cause of lots of nail-biting on the part of Lincoln and Flathead County officials.
There is fear that the asbestos that remains in the now-defunct vermiculite mine could be carried by the smoke and make its way to residential areas and other places where it could cause harm.
“The fire is moving in that direction,” said Flathead County Sheriff, Chuck Curry. “They threw a lot of resources at it. They were hauling loads of logs out not even limbed. They were cutting fire lines like crazy. I know they’re very concerned about it because they are in the fall zone.”
“We’ve had discussions with Lincoln County officials and they’re very worried about that,” Curry added. “Over the years we’ve had discussions with the Forest Service about how much of the asbestos from that site would be carried by the smoke.”
The Daily Interlake newspaper reports that Flathead City-County Health Department Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson has already reported concerns to both the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
EPA experts, however, don’t think there will be a problem. At least, not a problem of huge concern.
“She was assured by the EPA experts their studies have shown that should the fire burn over that heavily asbestos-laden forest, 95 percent of the asbestos would be contained in the ash,” Curry reported at a commissioner’s meeting held this past weekend.
The remaining 5 percent would be carried by the smoke, he noted, and pointed out that prevailing winds often blow smoke from the west toward Flathead County.
However, he added, studies show that the asbestos-contaminated smoke “would precipitate out fairly rapidly.”
The biggest risk, however, may be to the firefighters who are battling the blaze, experts point out. Though they are likely wearing respirators and other protective gear, all firefighters must be made aware of the asbestos risk from the tainted vermiculite mine, which has already killed a few thousand individuals in the region.
The West Fork fire was first detected on August 30 so it has been burning for nearly 2 weeks. The dry weather and current high forest fire risk allowed the fire to escape containment and make its way towards Libby.
Some communities in the area of the fire have already been evacuated as fire officials don’t estimate that containment will occur until about October 7 or later.