West Fork Fire raises asbestos concerns


KALISPELL, Mont. - The West Fork Fire burning near Libby is prompting increased concern over asbestos exposure in the area. Asbestos has been linked to the area because of mining vermiculite. The mine closed in 1990, and by 2009 the federal government declared Libby a public health emergency. As of Wedensday the fire is burning 6 miles away from the mining area. Local and federal officials said they are not immediately concerned about asbestos in the smoke because the fire was not approaching the mine. Lincoln County health officials told NBC Montana the Libby Asbestos Response Plan is in place if an event occurs near the mine area. If that were to happen air would be sampled and tested for asbestos concentration. Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Deb McKean said there have been experiments with small fires to find how asbestos works with smoke, but nothing with fires of this magnitude. "We have discovered that the majority of asbestos stays with the ash. But of course if the ash is disturbed it can resuspend in the air and somebody could breathe it in. But we do not really have any empirical data -- measured data -- on the movement of asbestos from a very, very large forest fire," McKean said. Officials also acknowledged the low levels of asbestos found in the forest where the fire is burning, but the main concern is the mining area.?