Natural Disasters Threaten Toxic Asbestos Superfund Sites in Western States

Natural Disasters and Toxic Superfund Sites

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent governmental organization whose main job is to take care of all matters that involve clean-up and maintenance of the environment while also effectively responding to how these environmental factors may affect the community.

Before the 1980s, there were many companies that would dump tons of their hazardous waste outside, into the open, poisoning the environment around it. To combat this, Congress put together the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980, while the EPA was in charge of handling and enforcing it.

The CERCLA is unofficially known as the Superfund. More specifically, it’s financial support put aside by the government for the EPA to clean up toxic waste sites found all over the country if the organizations responsible can’t or won’t do it themselves. Today, thousands of toxic waste sites exist and have been effectively maintained by the EPA, until now. With the increase in natural disasters happening all over the world, their potential interaction with Superfund sites could cause devastating results to nearby communities.

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Why Is It Happening?

Increases in the earth’s core temperature have been occurring for decades, with hotter temps spurring more natural disasters to occur than usual. Rising temperatures in some areas can mean drought, which can cause wildfires that grow out of control in mere hours, destroying the land around it. Between 1998 and 2017, droughts had impacted approximately 1.5 billion people, accounting for one-third of natural disasters globally.

Hotter temps in other areas with early snowmelt, excess snowpack, or intense precipitation can breed intensely dry seasons, drying out vegetation that grew in excess during the earlier, wetter months and creating wildfire fuel.

Besides wildfires, other areas may be affected by floods and hurricanes. This happens because extra moisture from the warmer climate causes excess precipitation, greatly increasing flood risk in specific areas.

The Western States

Western states like California, Colorado, Utah, and Montana must cope with their fire seasons going on for months longer than ever before. Over the past 5 years alone, fifteen out of twenty of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred, threatening to destroy nearby Superfund sites in their wake. In Montana, what seems like an insignificant increase in the earth’s temperature (between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950), has caused over double the yearly number of large wildfires over 1000 acres.

Other geographical factors in western Montana, like its bowl-shaped valleys, contribute to the already poor air quality in this state and nearby states like Colorado and California. Over the last 20 years, Colorado has also seen record wildfires, one after the next, with 2020 hosting three of the largest fires in the state’s history. The fires burned over 200,000 acres.

Utah is another place that may see the toxic consequences of wildfires. In 2013, a fire southwest of Salt Lake City was only 10 miles from the Tooele Army Depot, a Superfund site that contained 902 storage bunkers filled with ammunition. If the fires would’ve made it to the bunker, the surrounding soil and groundwater nearby would have been significantly contaminated by toxic substances, not to mention all the debris from the bunker.

The problem here lies in the constant, looming threat of natural disasters that can negatively impact communities and nearby toxic Superfund sites, subsequently releasing hazardous air pollutants like asbestos back into the environment.

Libby, Montana

A small mining town in Libby, Montana may be the biggest threat of all 234 Superfund sites in danger of wildfire impact across the nation. This mine was owned and operated by W.R. Grace, a chemical processing plant that was responsible for distributing tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite all over the world only 30 years ago. At one point, the Libby mine was responsible for about 70% of the world’s asbestos. The mine is located near a forest that’s been officially named a ‘hazardous waste zone’ by the EPA.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, if a wildfire destroys the Libby site, it could mean serious consequences for the communities nearby. Some firefighters believe the poisonous smoke could carry asbestos and other toxins hundreds of miles beyond the forest. Nearby residents that inhale asbestos or other harmful air pollutants could eventually develop mesothelioma or other cancers if exposed to harmful levels for long enough.

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What’s Next?

Approximately 60% of the country’s Superfund sites are vulnerable to natural disasters like wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, flooding, rise in sea level, and excess participation. The EPA is aware of the danger and has been taking steps to manage these risks.

After scares from wildfires and other disasters barely missing these high-risk areas, the EPA and individual state organizations are diligently working to clean up especially harmful Superfund sites like the Libby mine. For areas that can’t be cleaned up or maintained, the EPA plans to develop protections that can effectively shield the sites from disaster, while containing the hazardous waste.

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