MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. – “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole.”
These words were yelled before an explosion as Malmstrom explosive ordnance disposal Airmen watch their detonation from a distance.
Recently EOD received a call for support to detonate possible explosive, oxidizing and unsafe chemicals found in a laboratory of an abandoned mining site.
A project manager for the Carpenter-Snow Creek National Priorities List Superfund Site found chemicals in the chemical assay laboratory at the former mine site and requested assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA’s emergency response teams worked to safely containerize the chemicals and transport them to an appropriate disposal facility.
Some of the chemicals were considered too unstable for transportation and that’s when EOD received the call for assistance.
“The EPA came across unknown crystalized chemicals while they were doing site remediation of the Big Seven mining complex,” said Tech. Sgt. Daniel Esselstrom, 341st Civil Engineer Squadron NCO in charge of explosive ordnance disposal and team lead for demolition operations. “The chemicals were potentially very dangerous so they called us out to survey the situation.”
The chemical assay laboratory housed 33 unlabeled glass jars and metal barrels containing unknown chemicals.
“Some of the common chemicals used at assay laboratories form organic peroxides when they've been exposed to air and are unsafe to store for periods over one year,” said Craig Myers, Emergency Response Unit federal on-scene coordinator from U.S. EPA Region 8, based out of Denver, Colorado. “Over time, these peroxides form crystals that can be very sensitive to friction or shock. If these crystals are present in the threads of the cap/bottle, they can react explosively to the simple act of opening the container.”
The Airmen worked hand-in-hand with the EPA, Cascade County Sheriff Department, as well as Monarch and Neihart Volunteer Fire Departments to survey and coordinate the controlled disposal of the chemicals found at the Big Seven Mine in Neihart, Mont.
“It took a lot of coordination because the site was right in the middle of a national forest and we would be using explosives during a fire ban,” said Esselstrom. “There was a high risk for starting fires during the drought.”
EOD coordinated with local fire departments to formulate a plan and acquire the necessary equipment while the EPA removed the chemicals that were safe for transport.
“We had to do research on how to mitigate the explosives the best we could,” said Esselstrom. “We wanted a water trough that was capable of holding at least 300 gallons of water to prevent debris from shooting everywhere and extinguish the fire ball itself.”
Once the water trough was available and the plan was made, the teams set a date for safe detonation.
Detonation day coincidentally fell on the first of a few days of a cold front for the area so it was snowing in the mountains at the mining site.
EOD prepared the detonation site while the local fire departments situated their trucks on opposite sides of the site and once everyone made it to their positions they watched the detonation from safe distances.
“This was the first time any of us on the survey and detonation teams have responded to a mining complex,” said Esselstrom.
While this is the first response of its type, every response is unique so they train to respond to any kind of situation.
“No two situations are ever the same and even if you respond to the same type of munition, its always in a different environment with different considerations,” said Esselstrom.
According to Esselstrom EOD technicians have to think on their feet and they train at least two days a week.
“Explosive ordnance disposal is inherently dangerous in anything we do whether it’s working with bulk explosives or munitions,” said Esselstrom. “Training is really important to stay current and safe so we don’t get risk our lives or the lives of others.”