The words “hazmat” and “water supply” are some we hope to never see combined. Yet whether by accident or design, poisoning the watering hole has always been a threat.
In Bedford, Va., two firefighters and two employees were sent to the hospital for exposure to chlorine — 12 others were treated on scene.
According to WSLS, the incident occurred at the Bedford wastewater treatment plant when a delivery truck was moving chemicals to one of the plant’s storage tanks.
Two hazmat teams were called out to deal with the leak. Bedford’s fire chief told local media that he saw a plume upon arrival, and immediately called for more resources. Responders used Reverse 911 and police going door-to-door to evacuate 46 nearby residents and seven businesses.
In Baldwin, Pa., hazmat teams were dispatched to the water treatment plant when a treatment additive vented in the containment room and set off the fire alarm. WPXI reported this response from Pennsylvania American Water:
“None of the vapor from the additive escaped the containment room. The fire department contacted hazmat out of an abundance of caution. There were no injuries. The Hays Mine Water Treatment plant and drinking water were not impacted.”
Here are four takeaways from these incidents.
Get help coming fast. It is important that dispatch and local fire officers understand that getting a hazmat team mobilized, on scene and to work takes time. The quicker a team is dispatched, the quicker it can get to work mitigating the incident. In this story, it took two calls for aid to get the personnel and equipment necessary to contain a leak. In that case, time was not an issue and mutual-aid worked as planned. You may not have that luxury
Plan for an extended operation. Even small leaks can turn into longer events if access is difficult or there are mechanical issues, such as with this story or this one. Prepare for rehabbing and decontaminating team members. You also may need enough personnel to swap crews while one rehabs. Keep crews protected from extreme hot or cold weather could also be in play.
Inform the people. Unless the incident is in the middle of nowhere, one of the first critical decisions will be whether or not to evacuate or have residents shelter in place. In Bedford, responders used Reverse 911 and canvasing to evacuate residents. In 2020 when Hurricane Laura triggered a refinery fire in Westlake, La. that released and spread chlorine, state officials ordered shelter in place. Whichever decision is made, clear, repeated and accurate communication with the affected public is important. Direct communication, traditional media outlets and social media outlets are some obvious channels. It is important that what is being communicated can be understood, is repeated often and is delivered in short, digestible bites. The CDC has an easy-to-understand fact sheet that departments can pass out to the public. Watch the Bedford fire chief clear up evacuation questions with a reporter in his news conference.
Protect critical infrastructure. In these two recent leaks, the water supply wasn’t threatened — but we must plan as if it were. In these incidents, the sites were in operation. Assuming the operators are responsible and well-intended, working with them during such a leak should be pretty smooth. As with mutual-aid partners, any work that can be done with these officials and at these sites will pay huge dividends when an emergency strikes. Many sites, like the example from Texas, will be long abandoned. Here, the hazmat team is likely going to have to work without the benefit of accurate, historical information on the products and processes, or without additional resources from the host company.
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