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Naturally-occurring Asbestos Causes Concern in Washington State

In the western U.S., naturally-occurring asbestos isn’t unusual and it usually doesn’t present a problem. But in northeastern Washington, not far from the city of Bellingham, residents are concerned because asbestos from a nearby mountain is washing into a creek below, causing worry about contamination.

According to an article in the Bellingham Herald, a slowly moving landslide on Sumas Mountain in the town of Nooksack, Washington could represent a health risk, with microscopic asbestos fibers making their way into Swift Creek below, which runs into the Sumas River. That fact, say health officials, means something needs to be done to keep the creek clean.

The article reports that after a flood in 2009, asbestos was found in high levels in the soil deposited along the banks of the Sumas River. The asbestos was found as far north as the Canadian border. The material, experts stress, is killing most of the marine and plant life in and along the creek, making it impossible to cultivate a salmon habitat.

The county has been dredging the landslide material out of Swift Creek and piling it along the creek’s banks. Unfortunately, however, say Whatcom County officials, they expect to run out of room before long. In addition, the material can eventually erode back into the stream, causing further concern.

“The county has been trying to figure out what is the long-term solution to this problem,” said Ellie Hale, a project manager at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The old solutions no longer really are acceptable.”

Environmental experts are attempting to come up with new solutions for the naturally-occurring asbestos situation, the article reports. The cost is a concern as well, with estimates for building sediment traps in the creek, adding sediment basins along the creek’s edge, and building levees to further contain the sediment amounting to more than $7 million.

So far, there’s no steadfast proof that the presence of asbestos is causing health concerns or higher-than-normal rates of diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Nooksack Mayor Jim Ackerman, age 68, a native of the area, says he’s strong and healthy and not worried about asbestos exposure.

“I’ve worked around it, with it and in it all my life,” Ackerman said.