Firefighting in and around the W.R. Grace Vermiculite Mine Site

Contact(s): Willie Sykes


LIBBY, Mont. July 25, 2019The Forest Service is responsible for firefighting protection in and around the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine site where there is known asbestos contamination in the soil, duff and tree bark. Multiple agencies, including Lincoln County, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Department of Natural Resources and the US Forest Service, have collaborated to develop the Libby Asbestos Response Plan (LARP). The LARP includes a plan for a unified source of public information for residents and air monitoring during a wildfire within or near the mine site to assist the Health Officer in making public health recommendations. Additional efforts between the Forest Service, EPA and W.R. Grace to perform vegetation management within and around the mine site are underway. Strategically reducing vegetation in this area will help increase firefighting success and reduce the time a firefighter spends in the area.

When asbestos contaminated duff and tree bark burn, the asbestos concentrates in the ash. Asbestos fibers are typically not inherently hazardous unless they are released into air where they can be inhaled. Given that firefighting is an inherently dusty activity, the Forest Service is taking extra measures to ensure employee health and safety by requiring respirator use in the area.

Using a respirator during wildfire firefighting isn’t normal procedure and a limited number of firefighters are trained and equipped to do this work. Personnel that are trained are also dedicated to fighting fire in this area in an effort to provide adequate response to fire starts. In addition, the Forest Service prioritizes the use of aircraft and heavy equipment to help improve initial attack success. Should a fire escape initial attack, efforts will focus on values at risk. Firefighting tactics will be based on the values at risk on an incident by incident basis.

In addition to respirator use, working in this area requires decontamination of personnel, heavy equipment and vehicles during fire events. This includes firefighters’ packs, chainsaws, and clothing, basically any ground resource that enters the area during a fire.  Decontamination is important to reduce cross-contamination and potential asbestos exposure to firefighters. These additional measures, wearing a respirator and going through the decontamination process, reduces the time a firefighter spends on the fire. 

The Forest Service is working with employee health and safety experts such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to perform employee personal air monitoring during burning events. Gathering this information will help the Forest Service determine what measures are needed for employee health and safety while working in an area with asbestos contamination.

In conclusion, firefighting in and around the W.R. Grace Vermiculite mine will look different than normal firefighting for a number of reasons. There will be heavy use of aircraft and equipment when conditions allow and resources are available. There will be a limited number of firefighters on the ground and, before leaving the fire area, people and equipment will go through a decontamination process. Wearing respirators and performing decontamination during wildland firefighting restricts the time a firefighter can spend on a fire. The Forest Service will fight fire aggressively while providing for the safety and well-being of the public and responders.

For more information on firefighting in the W.R. Grace Mine site, please contact Environmental Engineer Pamela Baltz at 406-293-6211.

 

 

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