HazMat strategy would cut funding to SuperiorAlmost 20 years after Superior was the site of the largest evacuation from a chemical spill in the nation’s history, the state of Wisconsin is changing its approach to hazardous materials response.
By: By Mike Simonson/Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior Telegram
Almost 20 years after Superior was the site of the largest evacuation from a chemical spill in the nation’s history, the state of Wisconsin is changing its approach to hazardous materials response.
It means eight regional teams will be reduced to four, including a large cut to Douglas County.
But for the first time, Haz-Mat funding will go to smaller communities, including Ashland and Rice Lake.
In 1992, a Burlington Northern train derailment spilled a toxic stew of chemicals into the Nemadji River in the town of Superior, forcing some 50,000 people to evacuate the Duluth-Superior area.
From that, a state hazardous spills response plan was developed. But a new two-year study says the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and terrorism have changed the hazardous materials game plan. So Wisconsin Emergency Management Administrator Brian Satula wants four regional hazmat teams in Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton/Oshkosh and Eau Claire to be able to respond to chemical emergencies and weapons of mass destruction, downgrading Superior to a Type 2 response team.
“In this proposed system, we are going to develop that capability as well. We’ll provide even coverage across the state at all levels.”
Satula says HazMat teams in Superior, La Crosse, Wausau and Racine will see substantial cuts. But with money going to neighboring smaller cities, they’ll be able to get help if they need it.
“The beauty of this system is that all teams are inter-operable so that means each of the teams, regardless if they are Type 1 or Type 3, can operate at a Type 3 level, if needed.”
Type 3 is able to respond to basic emergencies like leaks of petroleum and recognizable chemicals. Type 2 can respond to the spill of unknown chemical spills like the mix of waste chemicals from the 1992 Superior spill. Type 1 can handle all emergencies including weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and radiological threats such as nuclear power plant accidents, or attacks and biological threats.
Douglas County Emergency Management Director Keith Kesler says the proposal is getting both support and criticism from his colleagues in the firefighting and emergency management communities. He sees the logic but he has lots of questions.
“In the long haul, is the plan going to cost more? Is it going to cost less? Is it going to be sustainable? Or for that matter, some of the departments that are listed in there as providing services, do they even have the equipment to do it and with the funding that’s required, can they acquire the equipment?”
The proposal by the State Department of Emergency Management would add money for hazardous material response to Ashland and Rice Lake.
Ashland would get $30,000, Rice Lake $5,000, but Superior would be cut $92,000 from $149,000 that it gets now. Satula says the new plan spreads out hazardous material money.
“The reality is, we created additional capability in those same areas. So if you look at it regionally, with Superior, Ashland and Rice Lake receiving funding, and two of those communities didn’t have it before, there is a sharing of that same funding that was allocated to that area.”
But Kesler says spreading the money out may weaken Superior’s ability to respond to hazardous materials emergencies at pipelines, rail lines, the city’s port and the Calumet Oil Refinery.
“The fact that Superior is being reduced to a Type 2 team will probably not significantly reduce the capabilities that they currently have. What I do see as an issue is the funding that the Superior team is going to be significantly reduced. With that reduction in funding, will they be able to maintain the equipment they currently have and fund the operation at a level they have today.”
The plan was rejected by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee earlier this month, which asked for more information about how it would work.
State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar says he helped write the original emergency response plan after the Toxic Tuesday spill. He says downgrading Superior’s funding from $149,000 to $56,000 a year flies in the face of special risks not seen in any other part of the state, including the Enbridge pipeline terminal, Calumet Oil Refinery, and the convergence of rail traffic and shipping in the Twin Ports.
The new plan by the Department of Emergency Management is expected to be resubmitted to the Joint Finance Committee in April.