MISSOULA – A report on how to deal with 35,000 acres of asbestos-laden forest on a mix of private and public land in northwestern Montana suggests harvesting trees could be profitable if debarking can safely remove the asbestos.
The 45-page study identifies a variety of ways to reclaim the contaminated forest in the mountainous region surrounding the town of Libby, the Missoulian reported.
Lethal dust from the W.R. Grace & Co. plant and the company’s nearby mine once blanketed the town and surrounding forest, and asbestos illnesses are still being diagnosed more than two decades after the mine was shuttered.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent $370 million removing soil and construction materials contaminated with asbestos in the town of about 3,000 people near the Canadian border, where an estimated 400 people to date have been killed by asbestos exposure. More than 1,700 have been sickened.
Officials have long known that the surrounding forest also is contaminated, though residents in the area routinely cut trees for firewood. A previous study found that while bark is contaminated, the wood inside the trees is not.
The recent report, titled “Asbestos Remediation Plan for Forested Areas near Libby, Montana,” gives some guidelines as well as challenges in how to deal with the contaminated forest.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Craig Rawlings, president and CEO of the Forest Business Network. “We’re talking about 35,000 acres, and the EPA is probably going to expand that area significantly.”
The 35,000 acres, called Operational Unit 3, includes the mine site. Scientists with the EPA say the acreage likely is surrounded by more forest contaminated with asbestos.
“Recently we have started investigating areas outside of OU3, and we do know that it exists in the forested areas outside of that unit,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s Superfund project manager in Libby. “There are so many unknowns about the level of contamination in the forests of Libby. We don’t know what levels are out there or what activities would be below a level of concern.”
Of the forest surrounding Libby, experts estimate there are 600 harvestable trees per acre that would produce about 425 million board feet. Logging slash and bark would be treated with water and sent to a permanent storage site or used as boiler fuel. But questions remain about that process.
Remedial logging, which would take 10 years, is just one possible way to deal with the contaminated forest.
“We will develop a whole slew of options for cleaning up OU3, not just logging,” Progess said. “Logging may end up being one of the options, and therefore the report could be helpful.”