EPA Gives $2.1M to Improve Firefighting Efforts Near Asbestos Superfund Site

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) are spending $2.1M this summer to expedite firefighting responses at the Libby Asbestos Superfund site.

W.R. Grace Company was the cause of Libby becoming an asbestos superfund site. The company was well known for dumping industrial waste containing large amounts of asbestos at several of their facilities in Libby.

More specifically, the money will improve firefighting efforts at the W.R. Grace &Co. asbestos mine just north of Libby. Asbestos is in the bark of trees and around the mine in a 47,000-acre area. It’s known as Operable Unit 3 (OU3), which has caused concern should a fire occur there.

A special USFS team of firefighters has been stationed in Libby since the mid-2000s when they were trained to deal with fires in OU3. The goal was to put out all fires from the air; however, the team has not found the method to be successful. Right now, they must wait for air resources like everyone else.

Currently, if a fire occurs, the firefighters fight on the ground and go in wearing respirators. Post-fire, they decontaminate themselves from the smoke and dirt. Before, the funds for the special team came from USFS.

“That money was never guaranteed,” said Kootenai National Forest District Ranger Nate Grassman.

Now, the $2.1M from the EPA will get the team desperately needed equipment, including a standby helicopter to douse the blazes. The funds will come from a joint-action memorandum that will provide money each year beginning with the 2016 fire season.

In fact, since the early 2000s, $540 million has been spent by the U.S. government to remove more than a million cubic yards of dirt and contaminated building materials from over 2,000 Libby and nearby Troy properties.

“This action memo will ensure that funding is always available to have resources dedicated to OU3,” said EPA Project Manager Christina Progress. “This solidifies our commitment to fighting fire in OU3.”

In recent years, the EPA and USFS have done studies that confirm the health impacts on both firefighters and the public when asbestos-contaminated trees catch fire. If a fire was to happen, the plan is for officials to have air-monitoring stations around the fire area. The stations would perform tests to ensure the air is safe to breathe.

Two feasibility studies are being prepared by W.R. Grace Company and the EPA. The cleanup will focus on the forests around the mine as well as the mine site and surrounding rivers. The studies should be complete by 2016 or 2017, a proposed clean up plan created, and then a record of decision will be issued.