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Superior’s hazmat funding cut in state shakeup

Duluth News Tribune

A new hazardous materials response plan was quietly launched in Wisconsin this month after two years of development. It changes funding in a way that has one Northwestern Wisconsin legislator fuming.

Wisconsin previously had eight hazmat response teams, in Milwaukee, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Wausau, Racine, Oshkosh/ Appleton, Madison and Superior.

The new plan introduces new terminology, listing the Milwaukee and Eau Claire teams as “tier 1” and the other six as “tier 2,” and introducing a “tier 3” level of funding and training for additional communities.

To add the funding needed for the tier 3 teams, all eight of the original teams took cuts in state money, said Lori Getter, a Wisconsin Emergency Management spokeswoman.

But the new system is inadequate for Superior, said state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, who calls it “hazmat response on the cheap.”

“It’s inadequate. It’s unacceptable. It’s underfunded, and it clearly ignores the high risk of hazardous materials spills in Superior,” Jauch said. “Emergency Management is proud of their plan, but frankly they should be embarrassed.”

The actual cut for Superior took place more than a year ago, Fire Chief Steve Panger said. From $130,000 a year, the city went to just under $93,000 shared with Ashland, which is considered a joint tier 2 team with Superior. Panger said

Superior gets $62,000 of the money, leaving just bare bones for his department’s hazmat response efforts.

“We don’t have the money for equipment like we did,” Panger said. “It basically is for the most part covering salaries and training costs.”

Northwestern Wisconsin took a deeper cut than any other part of the state, Panger contended.

But Getter said the region received almost as much funding as before, with Rice Lake and Menomonie added as tier 3 hazmat teams.

Statewide, the level of funding — $1.2 million — hasn’t changed in four years, she said.

Jauch said since Eau Claire is the closest tier 1 hazmat team, it would take two to three hours to respond to an emergency in Superior.

“It’s an insult to the citizens of Superior who have the only oil refinery, the entry point of approximately 17 percent of the nation’s crude oil supply (and) a major tank farm for natural gas,” Jauch said.

But as a tier 2 team, Superior is at the same level of expertise and training as it was under the old system, Getter said. The tier 1 teams are designed for the “worst of the worst” situations.

Panger noted that it was such a situation that prompted Wisconsin to develop a hazardous spills system in the first place, and it occurred near Superior: a 1992 train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals and forced about 50,000 people to evacuate.

The Superior Fire Department has 39 firefighters, all of whom are trained for hazmat response, Panger said. Some also have additional specialized training.

Mike Simonson of Wisconsin Public Radio contributed to this report. Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at