The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service want to station 10 firefighters near Libby, Mont., this summer so crews are immediately available to fight any fire that night burn in or near a former vermiculite mine contaminated with asbestos, which can cause lung cancer.
Libby District Ranger Nate Gassmann said having a team located in the area is critical to containing the threat of airborne asbestos if that case were to happen.
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 cleanup at the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine site.
A fire also could spread asbestos contamination to areas in and around Libby that weren’t previously contaminated or sections of the Superfund site that were already cleaned up.
“We wanted the public to understand that the agencies are prepared and they understand the need for added resources to fight fire” near the old mine site, Progress told The Western News.
However, Forest Service officials say they’re having difficulty finding any firefighters willing to take the job due to the risk of exposure to asbestos. Gassmann said some support positions have already been filled and the Forest Service may begin to look outside the agency to hire the firefighters.
The EPA is unable to predict how much asbestos would be stirred up by a fire at the mine site or how far it would be carried.
“There’s so many variables that would factor into it, from wind to topography to the relative humidity,” Progress said. “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.”
The EPA plans to pay about $300,000 of the expected $2.1 million cost of the firefighting team.
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