Fighting the Unknown

Every year a specialized group of firefighters gathers in Libby to prepare for disaster in one of the most contaminated places in America – the former W.R. Grace mine

By Justin Franz
Rudy Geber is pictured in his face mask as crews from the Libby Ranger District on the Kootenai National Forest train for deployment in Operational Unit 3 on June 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

LIBBY – Inside a building at the U.S. Forest Service’s Libby Fire Cache are two shelves with 28 boxes. Fourteen of the boxes have gray covers and 14 have red. The gray boxes are “clean.” The red boxes are “dirty.”

For the most part, these containers sit on the wood shelves untouched, only disturbed on training days. Even then, only the gray boxes are opened.

If the red boxes are disturbed it means something is happening inside Operable Unit 3, home to one of the most contaminated places in America.

Operable Unit 3, also known as OU3, is a 35,000-acre swath of forest in Lincoln County once home to the W.R. Grace & Company’s vermiculite mine, ground zero for the Libby asbestos contamination. Over the last few decades, thousands of people have been sickened and hundreds have died due to exposure to asbestos fibers that are found in the dust and dirt around Libby.

Since 2000, Lincoln County has been the epicenter of one of the largest Superfund cleanups in American history. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has billed the community as the cleanest it has been in years (in 2014, it reported that air asbestos concentrations were 100,000 times lower now than when the mine was running), the shuttered mine site and the contaminated forest around it remain relatively unchanged from the days when vermiculite was harvested from the earth. Because asbestos is still found in the soil, the forest floor duff and in the bark of trees there, local, state and federal authorities have long worried about what would happen if a large wildfire started near the old mine site, possibly releasing asbestos-laden ash into the air.

“If we have a fire inside OU3, that could impact Libby, Troy and just about any community down wind from it, even the Flathead Valley,” said firefighter and Kooteani National Forest engine captain Jacob Jeresek.

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Jeresek is part of a specialized team of firefighters based out of Libby who have volunteered to go inside OU3 should a large fire ever ignite. Every spring, the team gathers at the Libby Fire Cache just north of town for a training day. This year, 14 firefighters are on the OU3-trained roster.

The training program began nearly a decade ago after the mine and the surrounding forest were designated as OU3. The EPA often splits up Superfund sites into more manageable pieces. For example, OU1 is Libby’s Riverfront Park, where vermiculite was once loaded into rail cars.

Prior to the Superfund designation, firefighters went into the forest surrounding the old mine with no protective gear. Assistant Fire Management Officer Jason Sunell said the contaminated land surrounding the mine was treated just like any other part of the forest. Sunell was among the firefighters who worked in that area in the late 1990s and early 2000s and said none of those he worked with have shown adverse health impacts from the exposure. However, Sunell and the others also note that it can take anywhere from 10 to 40 years for asbestos-related respiratory issues to appear.

After the cleanup began in the early 2000s, the U.S. Forest Service decided to keep its fire crews out of the area and battle any wildfires near the mine from the air, but Jeresek said that proved to be ineffective.

“You can’t effectively fight a fire with water bucket drops,” he said. “You need people in there mixing and stirring and the only way to do that is to protect the firefighters.”

If a blaze does break out, firefighters must don protective masks and a powered air-purifying respirator that gives them fresh air to breathe while working. The masks prevent the crews from breathing in contaminants. While the public is allowed to go into most parts of OU3 without protection, even to harvest firewood, any time a Forest Service employee is working in the area, such as trail maintenance, they are required to wear a mask.

On June 1, during the annual training day, Sunell spent much of the morning fit testing each firefighter with a mask, which is similar to what a structure firefighter wears. The fit test ensures each person has a mask that properly fits and does not have any air leaks. The test takes about 10 minutes and requires the subject to do different exercises, including moving their head side-to-side and up and down and reading a short passage of text. Each movement of the face or mouth can expose a possible leak in the mask.

The mask is one of the most important pieces of equipment found inside the firefighter’s gray box that is stored at the fire cache. The gray, or clean, box has a mask, a powered air-purifying respirator and Nomex clothing. Before opening the other plastic tote, the red box, the firefighters have to don their masks and ensure a proper seal. Inside the dirty box is equipment that has already been used inside OU3 and may be contaminated, including pick-axes, backpacks and hardhats. Once a piece of equipment has been used inside OU3 it is permanently relegated to the red box until it is disposed of.

While the response to a normal fire is anywhere from 60 seconds to 15 minutes, Sunell said that it can take firefighters up to an hour to get ready to work inside OU3.

“You can’t just jump in the truck and go to the fire like we would on a normal call,” Sunell said. “It’s a long process to get ready and go.”

Rudy Geber tests his air filter as crews from the Libby Ranger District on the Kootenai National Forest train for deployment in Operational Unit 3 on June 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Rudy Geber tests his air filter as crews from the Libby Ranger District on the Kootenai National Forest train for deployment in Operational Unit 3 on June 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When they do go into OU3 to fight fires – there has only been a handful of small blazes in recent years – firefighters can work up to 10 or 12 hours. Brent Cooper, another engine captain who has been with the Forest Service for 18 years, said that firefighting in OU3 is tiring and that the masks reduce their peripheral vision and their ability to hear. Because of that, each firefighter carries an air horn to warn others of impending dangers.

After a shift, firefighters have to clean up in decontamination tents set up at the edge of OU3. In one tent, they soak themselves in water while still wearing their clothes and masks. This prevents asbestos from becoming airborne. Then they take everything off except the masks and go into a second tent where they take a regular shower and remove the masks, handing them over the top of a privacy wall to another firefighter assigned to the decontamination area. After showering, the firefighters go into a third tent and get dressed. Everything the firefighters wear inside OU3 is either thrown out or put into the red boxes to be used during the next fire. Items, including fire hoses, are also discarded after one use inside OU3. Tools, trucks and off-road vehicles (the ranger district has two UTVs, or utility task vehicles, used exclusively to fight fire in OU3) are washed and decontaminated.

While the protocols for fighting fire near the old mine have become tougher in recent years, in many ways, firefighters still don’t know exactly how dangerous the smoke and ash is from a fire in OU3. Until this year, the dirt and bark from the forest has only been burned and tested on a small scale in a laboratory.

But in May, officials with the USFS, EPA, W.R. Grace, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources, burned a small slash pile near the mine. During and after the fire, officials took air quality samples to determine the toxicity of the smoke and ash. Christina Progess, the EPA’s project manger for OU3, said the results from that burn are expected in the next month or two. Officials are already planning to conduct another test burn, this time about one-tenth of an acre, in late June to gather more data.

The test burns come as the EPA turns its attention to the future of OU3. Currently, W.R. Grace (with oversight from the EPA and others) is putting together a feasibility study to determine how parts of OU3 will be cleaned and what type of institutional controls might be put in place to protect the public. Officials say that some asbestos will always be present on the site, in part, because it is where the EPA currently disposes material from the cleanup in town. The feasibility study will be completed in the next year or two. It is also possible that the boundaries of OU3 will change, Progess said. In some instances, high contamination levels have been found in trees outside the operable unit.

“It’s still up in the air what institutional controls in OU3 will look like,” Progess said. “We will be working with the county to determine what’s realistic, what’s feasible and what’s necessary.”

Because some parts of OU3 will always be contaminated, it is likely that fire will always be a concern there. If a larger fire did start, local officials would use stationary and mobile air quality stations to determine how dangerous the smoke and ash is for the public and could require people to stay inside their homes or even evacuate.

“It’s not if it happens but when, so we have to be prepared the best we can,” Progess said.

That’s why the firefighters gather every spring to train. And while the fire activity in OU3 has been scant, with a low snowpack and dry spring this could be the year all that training is finally put to use.

While fighting fire is already an inherently risky job, doing it in such a contaminated area is even more so. A common question for the firefighters who volunteer to go into OU3 is why they would put themselves in such a position. All of them have similar responses: this is their home.

“I’m from here and there is sort of sense of duty to the community,” said Sunell, who was born and raised in Libby and has been with the Forest Service since 1994.

The same goes for Jeresek who has lived in Lincoln County his entire life and has seen impacts of the asbestos exposure first-hand. His childhood neighbors who once worked at the mine have died from asbestos-related diseases and his mother has respiratory issues stemming from the contamination.

“We’ve all had family members or friends who have gotten sick or died,” he said. “We’ve all been impacted.”

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