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Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. Friday with the following correction: The worker at Norris Lab tested to have blood lead levels below 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, not above. 

Two workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals, and the unincorporated community of Norris, 36 miles west of Bozeman, was in danger of a lab explosion.

The Madison County Sheriff’s Department evacuated Norris Tuesday while federal, state, and county officials removed potentially explosive chemicals from Norris Labs. Two bottles of chemicals were so volatile they could not be removed and had to be detonated onsite, said Shasta Steinweden, state environmental enforcement specialist.

Norris Labs performed assay tests and other chemical analyses for the mining industry. The chemicals being stored included acids and cyanides. Both are used to help test the purity of the metals and the ore.

One worker tested to have blood lead levels below 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which alerted the state health department in April. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration closed down the lab.

Adults with blood lead levels greater than 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood are associated with cardiovascular effects, nerve disorders, decreased kidney function, and fertility problems. The worker was over the age of 40, said Laura Williamson, state epidemiologist

The chemicals had been left open to the elements. Improper storage, exposure, and age were the reasons the chemicals had become dangerous. The chemicals had degraded.

There were also oxidizers in an outside shed. Oxidizers are a severe fire hazard.

Perhaps 100 feet from an original homestead cabin and other outbuildings used to store the dangerous chemicals is a propane tank. Approximately 200 yards away is a gas station.

The homesteading cabin contained both waste material and volatile chemicals. A former dance hall building, which appears to be of the same era as the cabin, had waste inside of it.

“We worked really hard to save the original homestead,” Steinweden said.

Both the cabin and dance hall were not harmed.

Other outbuildings also contained hazardous waste. Steinweden said the scale and magnitude and the owner’s inability to fund the cleanup prompted the state to ask the Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 to step in. 

Overall, the cost of the cleanup is around $200,000, said Craig Myers, EPA onsite coordinator. The EPA’s immediate focus has been to address the threat posed by the drums and chemicals, said Katherine Jenkins, public information officer for the EPA. 

The workers lived on the site in a trailer in addition to working there. The owner also lived onsite in a trailer.

Roger Thompson, Madison County sheriff, said that about 20 residences and businesses are located around the laboratory. U.S. Highway 287 North and Montana Highway 84 from Bozeman to Sterling Road were shut down. Missoula County's bomb squad handled the explosive material, Thompson said.

The volatile material was detonated offsite on private property about 2 miles west of Norris.

The soil on the property is contaminated with heavy metals. The EPA is having a contractor excavate the “dirty dirt.” The waste is being transported to Logan Landfill near Three Forks.

The town of Norris is on the banks of Hot Springs Creek just upstream of the confluence with the Madison River. A storm drain from the facility leads directly to the creek.

But Steinweden said the state tested the creek and found no metals.

The lab has been in operation since the mid-1980s, said Steinweden. Jeni Garcin, public information officer for DEQ, said the state inspected the lab 15 years ago, but the state didn’t continue inspections after that because the lab wasn’t generating very much hazardous waste.

Steinweden said the state found labeling from Golden Sunlight, a former open pit gold mine outside of Whitehall, in the waste material.

Dan Banghart, operations manager for Barrick-owned Golden Sunlight, said the mine mostly uses its own assay lab, but in 2015 and in 2017, the mine was backed up and sent out sample material to be tested by Norris Lab.

There was also electronic waste at the site that will have to be removed. 

When asked how bad the damage could have been had any of the volatile chemicals exploded, particularly so close to a gas station and a propane tank and oxidizers onsite, Myers said he didn’t like to speculate.

“But it would not have been a good day,” he said.

What will happen to the owner is not clear at this point. Garcin said the state will consider next steps after the cleanup is finished. That is expected to happen Saturday.

The EPA is still investigating the facts associated with the site and has not yet made any liability determinations, said Jenkins.

A call to the owner, Bob Prather, was not returned by press time.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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