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Linn County HAZMAT chief talks train derailments, Marengo explosion, CO2 pipelines
HIAWATHA — The Linn County Hazardous Materials team is one of 23 regional HAZMAT teams in Iowa, and one of only a few teams staffed mostly by volunteers.
The team is overseen by Linn County Emergency Management, and contracts with eight nearby counties to respond to HAZMAT-related emergencies. Only four counties in Iowa don’t have a regional team that they contract with.
The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has its own HAZMAT team that covers the city of Cedar Rapids, though the two teams work together occasionally for larger spills.
The Gazette recently spoke with Tom Ulrich, the chief of the Linn County HAZMAT team, about what sorts of emergencies the team responds to and how prepared they are to respond to large-scale hazardous material emergencies, like the explosion at a shingles recycling plant in Marengo in December, or the fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February.
Ulrich’s position as chief is paid through Linn County Emergency Management. The assistant chief, Brad Ransford, also is paid, but the rest of the team — currently about 18 members — are volunteers.
The team is stationed in Hiawatha, and most of the volunteers live in the Cedar Rapids metro area.
Q: How are Iowa’s regional HAZMAT teams organized?
A: “We have a state task force, it’s the Iowa State HAZMAT task force, and we try to coordinate efforts and equipment and knowledge between us, and we back each other up. The way it came about is, basically somebody said, ‘Hey, we need to cover the whole state, not just your local area.’ So, we started contracting.
“All those teams contract with the counties for response. We offer them 24/7 standby if they get a call, and we offer them some operations-level training for whatever fire departments would like to take it.”
Q: Is your work fully funded through contracts with counties?
A: “We bill the (hazardous materials) spiller … I have a standardized billing that I go off of, and we’ll bill the spiller. So the taxpayers don’t eat that bill, unless we have trouble getting them to pay. Marengo comes to mind. (The owner of the recycling plant) is dodging everything. Our contract says that if the spiller won’t pay, the county will. And we hate to bill Iowa County because that was a costly adventure for them.”
Q: What sorts of situations does your team respond to on a regular basis?
A: “The average call that we get seems to be a semi-truck that's been in an accident. Either their cargo’s compromised, or the truck’s fluids are in a river or something, and they want us to catch them before they hit the environment. Of course, with us, it's people first, environment second. We try to capture as much product as we can, whatever it is, before it gets into the atmosphere or into the ground.”
Q: What’s the typical process for deciding when to respond to a call?
A: “It’s up to the fire commanders, whoever gets called out, to make the decision to call us first. We try to train them when to call us, what to call us for. If you're in doubt, call us. It costs us nothing to drive there and turn around and come home. Once they call us, we respond to wherever, whatever the situation is.
Q: How important is it to get your team on site quickly when there’s a HAZMAT emergency?
A: “Take (the Marengo explosion) for instance, we went pretty quick down there, because they had an unknown of what they were into. They weren't sure of air quality. The public was affected, obviously, they were sheltered in place or evacuated. So, that was a quick call.
“Another example, we had some first responders go down up in Fayette County from going into a house, so we double-quicked it up there, so that hopefully whatever we could detect could help the doctors at the hospitals treat the victims.
“But most of our calls aren't (as urgent). For most of them, we try to run with traffic, if possible, because number one, it's safer. A lot of the calls can wait until we get there. We just recently had a milk tanker upset in Guttenberg … and it was in a pond that goes into the Mississippi River. Milk is a threat to aquatic life — it takes the oxygen out and kills whatever's in there. We didn't run hot to it, but we got there as quick as we could and helped mitigate it.”
Q: When it is an urgent situation, how does your response time differ from what you might see in a more urban area, like Cedar Rapids?
A: “We could have an emergency call take 30 minutes, or be an hour and 40 minute drive … but most of the time, the fire departments are trained to the operations level. Operations level means that they're trained to do defensive measures … and safely contain (hazardous material) until we can get there with the appropriate equipment.
“Fire departments will go out, look at the spill and be on the horn with us the whole way up, and we're typing our information in and getting our game plan as we're driving up there. The difference is, say if it's a call in Alburnett, and it’s eight minutes away, we're going to sit there and get a game plan (before we leave), because it's federal rules — we have to have an emergency plan.
“It takes a HAZMAT team, depending on what the situation is, a little bit of time to get the emergency plans, get the fire departments briefed, get everything set up. I know fire departments are one way: fast. Everything's fast. And with HAZMAT, it’s, ‘let's look at the whole thing here. What's mixing with what?’
“We have a scout car. We can go faster, if we need to get somebody on site quick. But normally, we can talk to the chief, or officer, or somebody else there that can tell us exactly what's going on.”
Q: How do you prepare to respond to large-scale HAZMAT emergencies, like the train derailment in Ohio?
A: “We have a group called the LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee). It's a local planning committee made up of representatives from the chemical industries here in Linn County as well as emergency response personnel, and we know what goes up and down the rail. The rail companies are very good to us as far as donating things and spending time for any specialized training that we'd like to have.
“As an LEPC, we paid for a commodities flow study, along with our neighboring counties, so we actually … had contractors sitting on the roadways marking down what was flowing. We worked with the different rails to give us their secure list of what they're hauling, with confidentiality agreements, obviously. So, we know what's going up and down the roadways. We know what's going up and down the rails.
“The HAZMAT teams across the state of Iowa, we're very fortunate. I don't know all of them, but the larger regional teams I do. I know we send people all over the country for advanced training.
Q: Have you been involved in any discussions related to the proposed CO2 pipelines that would go through Iowa?
A: “We’ve been in all kinds of discussions. We’ve been at Linn County Planning and Zoning ordinance meetings. We’ve been at safety briefings for two different companies. Honestly, in order to get that hazardous waste away from those businesses, we have to have somewhere, some way to go with it.
“My recommendation was to make the pipeline companies buy, for the departments that would respond along their jurisdiction, make them buy the CO detectors that would go on the truck. So, if they responded somewhere they’d have a CO detector. I also suggested buying the HAZMAT team vapor detection, that detects any type of vapor leakage from a pipeline, so if there was a possible break in the line we could go out with this and see the vapor. They’re like a hundred grand, so I don’t know if they’d be willing to do that, but it would be a very good gesture on their part to do that.
“From what I can see, they’re really working hard to be good community safety folks with this pipeline … I’m for any type of safe hazardous material transport, and pipelines is one that has a pretty good safety record. I’ll keep waiting and watching, but we’ve been involved with any and all meetings we can with the pipeline companies. And they’ve been real responsive. The emergency management coordinators for our region wanted to have a private meeting with those folks, and they wanted the HAZMAT team involved as well. So, we actually had a private meeting with them on safety, and they did quite a presentation on what their safety program is for their Calgary, Canada, pipeline. I thought it was pretty good.”
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