Signage for the Norris laboratory. (EPA)Front side of the assay lab. The main laboratory is on the right and the processing/crushing lab is on the left. Note seepage (EPA).Conditions inside the laboratory. (EPA photos)Conditions in the lab’s bathroom  where chemicals were reportedly flushed down the toilet into a septic tank.

Norris evacuated for hazardous chemical cleanup by EPA

Volatile, flammable chemicals found in local lab facility

NORRIS—The cleanup efforts came just in the nick of time.

The community of Norris was evacuated last Tuesday, July 17, and the intersection of highways 84 and 287 shut down as workers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Environmental Quality disposed of some harmful and volatile chemicals found at the site of the former Norris Labs.

Norris Labs had been an assay testing and chemical analysis facility until it was closed earlier this year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to EPA.

The lab worked primarily with the mining industry.

Last week, hundreds of containers of hazardous substances – including strychnine sulfide, hydrofluoric acid, ammonium hydroxide and perchloric acid – were extracted from multiple buildings at the facility, which sits in the center of Norris less than 300 yards from a gas station.

Some of the substances found were improperly stored, including some that were flammable or explosive. Some substances had been flushed down the facility’s toilet into a septic tank. Hazardous materials had leached out of their containers and into surrounding soil, potentially leaching into Hot Springs Creek.

In addition to the hazardous materials, responders—who came from the EPA, DEQ, Montana Department of Emergency Services, Montana State Patrol, Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Missoula County Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Team and others—found electronic debris like circuitry on the property, which can also leak substances like battery fluid or other contaminants into the surrounding ground.

The EPA learned of the improperly stored chemicals at the end of June after a routine OSHA inspection led to the lab’s closure. EPA immediately began formulating a response plan: They started by collaborating with Bob Prather, the owner of the property and the lab’s chemist, but learned that the owner wouldn’t be able to fund the cleanup. So EPA turned to the national EPA body for a response team, which was provided on June 21.

The most dangerously volatile chemicals found on the property included chloric acid and piric acid that had been improperly stored, says Martin McComb, the EPA contact for the project. He calls them “well-known explosive risks.” When those chemicals are improperly stored, as the ones at Norris had been, and are exposed to a freeze-thaw cycle of weather, they can crystallize and become highly explosive. 

Some of those chemicals had already crystallized, McComb said, including bottles of chloric acid and piric acid. Some bottles were so extensively crystallized they could not be moved to the disposal trailer and had to be neutralized on-site: The EOD team was called in to ensure that the cleanup wouldn’t cause any volatile reactions.

Most of the containers of hazardous materials were moved by EOD to a bomb-proof trailer. Those containers were then transported two miles outside of town before being neutralized by detonation. However, some of the containers were too volatile even to move off the property, so they were disposed of on-site using controlled explosives. 

One of the most immediate concerns for the EPA was the proximity of the chemicals to Hot Springs Creek and downstream Norris Hot Springs. The lab sat very near a storm drain, says McComb, so the damage if the chemicals had reached the waterway could have been severe.

“We were pretty worried about it,” says McComb. “We sampled upstream and downstream and a nearby lagoon and didn’t pick up anything. But with a storm drain that leads directly to the creek, we may not have caught it during a storm.” 

At this point, says McComb, now that those chemicals have been removed and disposed of, and once the contaminated soil is scraped from the surrounding area, there are likely to be no adverse effects for Hot Springs Creek or the Norris Hot Springs themselves. 

Prather and some of his former employees were living on the property where the chemicals were found. When tested, some showed physical ramifications from the improperly stored chemicals, including elevated blood lead levels. 

“Residents of the property who worked at the lab showed adverse health effects due to their exposures,” including exposure to heavy metals, says McComb. 

Extended exposure to heavy metals like lead and can lead to neurological disorders, heart and respiratory problems and organ failure. 

The materials disposal was completed on Tuesday, July 17, but the EPA and DEQ have more work ahead of them to ensure the safety of the facility.

More cleanup efforts are planned to excavate and remove some contaminated soil surrounding the lab and its outbuildings to ensure that nothing is leaching into the surrounding land and waterways. The electronic waste that sits on the property will also be removed and disposed of, but the improperly-stored chemicals are gone from the property. 

The lab itself will also be cleaned and swept for any remnants of hazardous materials. 

McComb says the plan for moving forward is a direct one. The EPA will also arrange for a waste transport to pick up the chemicals that were packaged for disposal.

Prather will not likely face criminal charges, says Madison County Sheriff Roger Thompson, at least on the county or state level.

“In a nutshell, he just realized that he didn’t have the financial means to mitigate the problems here,” says Thompson. “He was cooperative with the EPA and DEQ and allowed them to come onto the property to fix the situation.” 

The main goal, Thompson says, was to ensure the safety of the surrounding community and environment, especially since Hot Springs Creek is so close to the site. The highway closure and Norris evacuation were lifted, and the site no longer poses a threat to anyone living in the area.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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