Local emergency response agencies would be notified of any release of chemical warfare agent at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, local emergency officials say - even if there's little chance toxic fumes would reach the public.
Recent public concern over whether changes in federal Environmental Protection Agency chemical exposure guidelines would affect whether the Army would notify emergency responders is unfounded, according to Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program spokeswoman Cheryl Humphrey.
Under the current Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) plan in Oregon, the depot must notify local emergency authorities of any release of chemical agent within 10 minutes of the accident, she said.
"The practice in place today is that the depot notifies dispatchers about anything that happens at the depot, whether it involves chemicals or not," said Humphrey. Even an incident such as a grass fire caused by a train passing through the depot is reported, she said.
"And if chemicals were ever involved, the depot would notify the 9-1-1 center no matter how much chemical there is," she said.
In the event of a chemical accident of any kind, Oregon environmental regulations require the Army to immediately provide information about which chemical was involved, how much was released and whether a chemical plume might pass beyond the depot boundaries. Depot officials would also provide information about wind direction and speed to help officials decide where a plume might travel, she said.
It's up to local emergency responders to decide whether to sound an alarm to warn people to evacuate or shelter in place, and to decide what protective action to take, Humphrey said. Under the current emergency plan, if any accidental release of toxic chemicals is expected to travel beyond depot boundaries - even if the release is at a very low concentration - local authorities would turn on the alarms to warn local residents of the danger.
Information about the effects of chemical exposure on humans provided by the EPA's acute exposure guideline levels, or AEGLs, would help local emergency officials make decisions about what to do after a chemical emergency had ended, Humphrey said. For example, depending on the seriousness of the chemical release, emergency responders might ask people to remain sheltered in place for a longer period of time, or they might tell people it's okay to come out.
Army standards for chemical toxicity are less strict than federal AEGL standards because they are based on how different levels of exposure to chemical agent would affect a healthy, young male soldier. Federal EPA standards for risk to the public must also take into consideration people who might be more susceptible to harm, such as young children or the elderly. Oregon adheres to the stricter standards as well.
Hermiston Fire Chief Jim Stearns said local emergency officials will consider any release of chemical agent to be a serious event.
"Our view is that it's deadly stuff," he said. "We have to treat (any release) as a worst-case scenario."
While the Army and the EPA still disagree over the effects of varying levels of exposure to chemical agent, Stearns emphasized that that won't affect whether warning sirens will be sounded in the event of a chemical accident.
"It's down to splitting hairs," he said. "If we can't quantify how dangerous it is, then we should just treat it as the maximum."