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Emergency Crews Face Toxic Challenge in Washington State Mudslide

  • Reuters

A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a "PV" marking, which stands for "possible victim," March 30, 2014, in the debris field of the massive landslide that struck the community of Oso, Washington.

A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a "PV" marking, which stands for "possible victim," March 30, 2014, in the debris field of the massive landslide that struck the community of Oso, Washington.

Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge - an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants.

Sewage, propane, household solvents and other chemicals lie beneath the surface of the gray mud and rubble that engulfed hundreds of acres of a small, rural community and left dozens dead and missing northeast of Seattle on the morning of March 22.

The official death toll was raised to 24 on Monday - up from 21 a day earlier - with 30 people still listed as unaccounted for nine days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River.

County officials planned to present their next update on the status of the recovery operations at 11 a.m. local time on Monday.

Managers of the recovery operation were taking special measures to protect the hundreds of workers on the scene from chemical exposure and to prevent toxic sludge from being carried offsite.

"We're worried about dysentery, we're worried about tetanus, we're worried about contamination," local fire Lieutenant Richard Burke, a spokesman for the operation, told reporters visiting the disaster site on Sunday. "The last thing we want to
do is take any of these contaminants out of here and take them into town, back to our families."

The torrent of mud released by the slide roared over both stream banks and across state Highway 530, flattening dozens of homes on the outskirts of the town of Oso in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

The county medical examiner's office said on Monday it had received a total of 24 victims from the slide, with 17 positively identified. The dead included a four-month-old infant and two older children, ages five and six.

That number was up from an official toll of 21 victims announced late on Sunday, when officials said they had also located four additional sets of remains that were omitted form the official tally without explanation.

Conflicting Numbers

The death toll in the disaster has been somewhat of a moving target in recent days as county officials have reported locating a number of bodies without adding them to their fatality toll.

Search crews, with the help of dogs, have been regularly finding and retrieving more remains, at least four to six times a day on the eastern half of the massive debris pile, recovery team supervisor Steve Harris told a news conference.

Authorities have said the process of accounting for the number of dead has been complicated by the fact that the bodies are not always found intact.

Harris said the mudslide struck with such force that whole cars were “compacted down to about the size of a refrigerator, just smashed to the point where you can hardly tell it was a vehicle.”

No one has been pulled out alive and no signs of life have been detected since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived.

Officials have conceded it may be impossible to account for everyone lost in the disaster, and that some victims might end up being permanently entombed under the mound of muck and debris, which county authorities say covers one square mile (2.6 square km).

Scores of recovery workers, including National Guard troops just back from Afghanistan, picked through the swampy, rubble-strewn mud on Sunday as overcast but dry weather provided a welcome respite from heavy rains of recent days.

Weather forecasts for the week ahead showed a continued drying trend, "which will help crews and reduce the risk of flooding and additional slides," the county said in a statement.

Some parts of the slide area, buried beneath 15 to 75 feet (five to 23 meters) of mud, twisted tree trunks and wreckage, were still too dangerous to enter, Burke told reporters.

Like most workers at the site, Burke's boots were sealed to his trousers with duct tape, a precaution to keep toxic sludge out of his clothing. National Guard troops also set up a decontamination station where workers scrubbed themselves with
soap and hot water before leaving the site.

"This is going to be a hazardous materials site for many years while we try to get this cleaned up," Burke said.

Governor Jay Inslee, who toured the disaster zone by helicopter on Sunday, said relatives had not given up all hope of finding a "miracle" survivor, and neither had authorities.

"We're looking for that miracle right now," the governor said during a stop at an airfield in the neighboring town of Arlington. "If we don't find that miracle, they're also looking for the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones."
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