Wildlife fueled by climate change threatens toxic superfund sites

In 2010, the 109,000-acre Jefferson Fire spread to the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear power research center, where it burned at Superfund sites that had been cleared of radioactive contamination over the past 17 years. The lab reported that sampling the area during a fire did not remove radioactivity.

According to Wildfire Today, in 2013 the Patch Springs Fire southwest of Salt Lake City, within 10 miles of the Vale Army Depot, burned 902 ammunition storage bunkers with soil and groundwater, hazardous chemicals. Were contaminated with.

In 2018, the Carr Fire burned over 359 square miles of Northern California and swept over the Iron Mountain Mine Superfund site, threatening to release corrosive chemicals into the water area. The narrowly average disaster prompted the EPA to recheck the threat posed by waifers for Superfund sites, particularly older mines.

Firefighters try to control the Carr fire on July 31, 2018 near Redding, California.Mark Ralston / AFP – Getty Images

And in October, Captain Jack Mill was in the Superfund site, a closed mining operation in Boulder County, Colorado, in the lefthand Canyon and Calwood fire evacuation zone, but was spared burns off the site.

Over the past 20 years, Colorado, for which the GAO has listed two fire hazard Superfund sites, has seen one record wildfire after another, its three biggest fire incidents in state history this year, 140,000 to 200,000 acres each burning.

In California with 18 hazard sites, the fire season is now almost year-round, with more than 25 million acres of the state’s wildlife facing high or excessive fire hazards. The state saw more than 4 million acres burned this year, the highest in its recorded history.

According to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, in Montana, with five danger sites, temperatures have warmed to 2.7 degrees in the last 70 years, significantly higher across the country. According to research published by Climate Central, from 1970 to 2015, warming increased the number of forests in Montana to more than 1,000 acres at least tenfold, a greater percentage increase than any other western state.

The Kootenai National Forest, which houses asbestos-contaminated sticks of Libby in an area known as OU3, endured a record 25,000 acres of caribou fire – the largest wildfire in 2017. The following year, OU3 suffered a very close explosion, the Highway 37 Fire, conducted by firefighters on just 71 acres. The fire burned outside the boundary of the contaminated forest.

“Climate change is causing severe, widespread fire behavior. We are seeing more and more large, dramatic, devastating fires, “said Don Whitemore, a Colorado fire incident commander who called on the Forest Service, EPA, state and county leaders in their plan to manage the fire at OU3 helped.

“They have produced a group of major fires in Kootenai and northwestern Montana over the years,” he said. “I can say that this is a scenario for fire. It is sure to burn. It is ideal for burning.”

Montana’s Glaciers walk on the shores of Lake McDonald’s in National Park as the Howe Ridge Fire burns in the background on August 12, 2018.Via National Park Service AP

Libby: a wakeup call

The Highway 37 fire outside Libby began along the highway on July 19, 2018, where sparks and hot engines often lead to wildfires. Nolan Buckingham’s Asbestos Wildland Fire Crew donated to his MPs in the event of crossing the border in contaminated air and exploding in less than 10 minutes.

Given the extreme health hazards presented by the forest contaminated with highly toxic asbestos, there was no margin for error in extremely difficult conditions.

“The fire really knocked people out of their level of comfort, even if it wasn’t in OU3,” Buckingham said.

As the fire progressed overhead, breathalyzers made it difficult for firefighters to keep up. Luckily, in a place where the steep slopes were flat in a quarter mile in no time, the hill gave them the break they needed. “We were able to catch it,” Buckingham said.

Nolan Buckingham with crew members fighting the Highway 37 fire near Lallaby, Mont.Nolan Buckingham

For the next several days, the aircraft bombed the flames with continuous water as Buckingham and his team installed hoses and sprinklers and, at one point, burned the vegetation before it caught fire. Contractors with heavy equipment helped him build a fire line around the explosion. The fire was finally declared on 31 July.

“We learned a lot from the Highway 37 fire,” said Nat Gasman, district ranger for the Kootenai National Forest, which includes a strategy to fire and quickly engage crew members in their shifts.

Nolan Buckingham, in a red cap, stands with his crew, ignoring the heart of the mine in August 2019.Courtesy Nolan Buckingham

Still, when the contaminated forest’s fuel buildup and steep topography align with the hot dry weather, the fire incident commander, Whitmore, said he worried the area could see more than 70 acres of burns.

“Correct alignment in a day – looking at more than 50,000 acres,” said Whitemore, who has studied OU3 in detail and led large fire crews throughout the West.

“It’s got fuel.” This is the topography. It just needs weather alignment, ”he said. “And if you are aware and aware of climate change on a global, national, landscape level, then it would not be irresponsible to think that this is a strong possibility. You have to plan for the worst. Because More and more, we are not only seeing the worst case, we are seeing events that outweigh the worst. “

Iron Mountain: near disaster

Carol Fire began on July 23, 2018, about 5 miles west of the Iron Mountain Superfund site in Redding, California. This eventually uproots the site, crippling the critical waste treatment infrastructure that captures 168 million tonnes of acid mine drainage every month. . It took more than five weeks.

The Carr Fire burns on July 30, 2018, west of Redding, California.Terray Sylvester / Getty Images

“My God had this feeling. We should keep a better eye on wildfires at Superfund locations, ”said Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA who continues to consult with the agency on abandoned quarry sites. “Earlier, there was not much thought about climate change and fire. It has changed. “

Iron Mountain is a hilly, 4,400-acre site with steep slopes and deep, V-shaped valleys in northern Shasta County, California where iron, silver, gold, copper, zinc, and pyrite mined from the 1860s to the 1960s Had gone.

The former mine contains more corrosive water than battery acid which also contains large amounts of zinc, copper, and cadmium.

Were it to flow untreated into nearby streams, toxic water would kill fish, including Chinook salmon in endangered winters, and destroy habitat for the region’s wildlife. The acid and poison in the tainted water may eventually contaminate the Spring Creek reservoir, which catches mountain runoff 8 miles from the Sacramento River above the town of Redding, a city of 90,000, which relies on the river for drinking water.

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In anticipation of the fire-burning electric poles, the site’s managers shut down the power to facilitate treatment, which cleans out the extraction of toxic acids before entering the water. The fire also crawled into the mine with hundreds of feet of polyethylene pipe, a fuse that could ignite combustible pyrite – the fool’s gold – that caused an explosion inside the cave.

After the treatment system was shut down, an emergency collection reservoir and a million-gallon holding tank captured the stained water before it could reach nearby streams. Firefighters extinguished flames crawling along the pipe within the mine before they ignited pyrite, preventing an explosive fire that could emit choking clouds of sulfur dioxide.

The million gallon tank collected 395,000 gallons of acid mine water, which was restored to the treatment facility a few days after the fire. The plastic pipes that caught the fire were replaced by stainless steel pipes.

“The failure will have an immediate, long-term impact on the area’s drinking water supply and fisheries,” said Kate Berger, a senior engineering geologist at the Central Valley Water Board.

The closed call prompted EPA officials, in a five-year review completed a month after the fire, to note the wildfire the site encountered as a threat.

During the car fire, Lily Tavassoli, Iron Mountain project manager for the EPA, defended the agency’s readiness to say the site was designed to handle wildfires on a scale of fire in the past.

She said the “carry fire” was much larger, faster-paced and more intense than previously experienced. “

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