New study: Asbestos remediation plan for forested areas near Libby, Montana

Asbestos remediation plan for forested areas near Libby MontanaForest Business Network, The Beck Group, and Envirocon have been involved with the Lincoln Port Authority in the town of Libby, Montana on a very unique project that should interest you a great deal.

Some may be aware of Libby’s troubles with asbestos over the years, but likely many are not. Here’s a quick recap to get you up to speed.

A large vermiculite mine had been in operation just outside of Libby since 1919 under the Zonolite brand but was purchased by the W.R. Grace and Company in 1963. The W.R. Grace mine was the area’s largest employer until 1990 when it shut down operations. Later, federal government investigators discovered elevated levels of fibrous tremolite asbestos in air samples and have suspected that more than 274 area deaths in the past 60 years have occurred from exposure to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in the mines and from home use of the product. The burning of asbestos-laden firewood in wood stoves also contributed greatly to the spread of the tremolite fibers across the area.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a base in Libby in 2000 and has since spent $370 million in Superfund money removing asbestos-contaminated soils and other suspect materials. The EPA declared a public health emergency on June 17, 2009 that covers both Libby and the nearby town of Troy and which adds an additional $130 million to help with cleanup and medical assistance.

Now here’s where FBN, The Beck Group and Envirocon come in. Late this spring, we contracted with the Lincoln County Port Authority to draft a feasibility study to identify a remediation plan for 35,000 acres of mixed-ownership forest located 6 miles outside Libby’s city center, identified by the EPA as Operational Unit 3. The forest around the mine, both trees and duff, acted like a sponge, mopping up the asbestos fibers from the mining operation; hence, the contaminated firewood. Our working group was tasked with considering how to remove the asbestos-contaminated bark and duff from this rugged, mountainous terrain in order to reclaim the vegetation and natural timber resources and restore the forest to public use.

The Lincoln County Port Authority’s objectives for the study were:

  • Develop a remediation alternatives list that identifies possible remediation approaches
  • Analyze these alternatives to determine the best one or two; “best” defined as the technically sound alternative that captures and removes the most contamination and releases the natural resources while restoring the forest
  • Plan out in a step-by-step format the clean-up process for the best alternatives
  • Detail the modifications necessary to processing equipment and processing techniques, including the consideration of respiratory protection, to ensure the safety of the workers as well as to ensure hazardous fibers are captured, contained, and do not re-contaminate the clean timber resource
  • Identify all other necessary best management and safe remediation practices

As you might imagine, trying to figure out a plan for reclaiming 35,000 acres of contaminated, mountainous forest is no easy task. Rugged landscape or not, this has never been done before. However, I’m proud to say that our working group recently completed the study and presented it to the Lincoln County Port Authority only a few weeks ago. They’ve given their blessing to post the report to the general public (click this link to read it) as they focus on their next steps, which are outlined below.

Port Authority next steps

Long Term Goal: Reclaim the forest from the contamination caused by previous mining errors and return the forest back to public use.

Short Term Goal: Catastrophic fire prevention.

  • Financial Feasibility Study to determine costs, revenues, and financing options
  • What role do the landowners/agencies play?
    • W.R. Grace
    • United States Forest Service
    • DNRC
    • Plum Creek
    • U.S. EPA
  • Investigate the potential for a stewardship contract and understand C.E.R.C.L.A. authority for project
  • Develop vegetation management plan (effective prescriptions, management actions, transportation plan, etc.), duff remediation plan, and desired results
  • Determine what to do with contaminated slash and bark:
    • Electric power generation (ESP to capture fibers)
    • Process steam use (ESP to capture fibers)
    • Vitrification
  • Detailed assessment of infrastructure needs for processing of contaminated materials (ie. boiler, lab facility, processing facility, etc.)
    • If the boiler is the answer for processing contamination, then obtain the boiler permit

Be sure to read the finished feasibility study. I think you’ll find it a worthwhile look into what should morph into a significant national story as next steps are taken and the project is moved further along.

And one last thing. Roy Anderson of The Beck Group will present the report’s findings on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 3pm at the Society of American Foresters’ national convention in Spokane, Washington. If you’re registered and attending the event, be sure to check out his presentation!

Craig Rawlings

Craig Rawlings is the president & CEO of Forest Business Network and has 30 years experience in the forest products industry as an entrepreneur and technical consultant. He can be reached by calling 406.240.0300 or by using our contact form.

Image at top: Danas /

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