EPA To Model A Fire In W.R. Grace Asbestos Mine Site

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The City-County Board of Health unanimously voted on a joint effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Forest Service to model a fire in the W.R. Grace mine site.

The goal of the model fire will be to provide information about potential area-wide contamination from the release of asbestos in smoke caused by wildland fires in Operable Unit 3 of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site.

Libby is where the W.R. Grace & Company operated asbestos and vermiculite mines for approximately 40 years beginning in 1938.

Now, nearly half the population of Libby has been diagnosed with asbestos disease in addition to the 200 who have died from exposure to the asbestos-tainted vermiculite.

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral used in the production of insulating materials—and is extremely toxic. During the W.R. Grace mine’s operation, the harmful vermiculite ore was shipped to over 50 processing plants throughout North America.

The information gained from the model fire project will help local fire responders and emergency management personnel to allocate resources and develop procedure in the case of a forest fire occurring near the former W.R. Grace mine site.

The $50k project started on January 22nd by members of the incident management team. Diane Hutton leads the model fire plans as she was in the area during the 2015 fire season.

No actual fires will be set, but “theoretical” ones that take weather patterns, topography, and fuels into consideration will commence, according to Canoe Gulch ranger, Nate Gassman.

Technology and advanced analytics will collect behavior and variable data. The path of the smoke can then be hypothesized to determine the possibility of Libby amphibole asbestos particles traveling into Libby’s populated areas.

The project was originally presented to the board by Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program Manager, Nick Raines, to test the impact on air quality. It’ll last two weeks and is completely funded by an increase in the ARP grant from the EPA. Therefore, neither Lincoln County nor the City-County Board of Health needs to pay for any of it.

The Board of Health was brought in to solve the bureaucratic issues between the two agencies. Now the grant will go to the U.S. Forest Service contracted through the Asbestos Resource Program.