Most of the time, HazMat teams in Oregon find themselves responding to fuel spills or chemical releases, things that pose an obvious and direct threat to human health and safety.
Occasionally, they find themselves responding to a less common incident, like 7,000 gallons of spilled milk. In 2016, Hermiston’s local HazMat team responded to such an incident near Boardman. The truck crash, which claimed the life of the driver, spilled more than 7,000 gallons of milk into a nearby wildlife area. Though not harmful to humans, the milk was considered hazardous in that situation, because it was entering the water stream and could harm or kill fish and aquatic life.
“Even discarded food-grade oil, which is taken and turned into biofuel,” said Michael Heffner, the emergency response services branch manager for the state fire marshal’s office. “You don’t want that to make its way into streams and waterways.”
There are 13 regional hazardous materials (HazMat) response teams throughout the state, which make up the Regional Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Teams (RHMERT). Though they’ll get some unusual calls, more than 50 percent of their job includes responding to, and minimizing damage for, chemical and fuel spills along highways — often from truck crashes.
The team based in Hermiston covers the entire northeast quarter of the state. Though they cover that entire area, the team of 17 HazMat responders are all based out of the Umatilla County Fire District station in Hermiston. While those responders also serve as paramedics or firefighters, they receive hundreds of hours of additional training, and have to attend technical school for HazMat training. They can also get trained in specific areas, such as how to respond to rail car accidents.
“Hermiston is one of our busier teams,” said Heffner, who was in Hermiston on Tuesday for a presentation about HazMat services. “They certainly respond on a number of petrochemical highway incidents.”
Recently, the team also responded to a plane crash in a field near Hermiston. The plane, a crop duster, had been carrying Roundup pesticide, but its tank was empty. The team ended up not having to do any cleanup.
“The fuel had already leaked out, and there wasn’t anything for HazMat to do,” said Dennis McClure, UCFD’s HazMat team coordinator.
While the HazMat team responds to any situation that might pose a health risk to those around it, they encouraged people to educate themselves on resources.
The U.S. Department of Transportation publishes an emergency response guidebook every four years, which offers a comprehensive list of the different types of hazards, how to recognize labels for different hazardous materials, and how to respond to each one.
People also can access a database that tells them how many facilities within their county house more than a certain amount of hazardous materials. The “Community Right to Know Act” requires that facilities that store more than 500 units of a hazardous substance have to report it. Community members can create an account and can look up any facilities statewide, by county, that meet that number. In Umatilla County, there are 382 active facilities, and in Morrow County, there are 140.
Those facilities can be less obvious than the casual observer would think. River Point Farms is one, as is BiMart.
“One facility that may have in excess of 500 pounds of battery acid is a cell phone tower,” Heffner said. “A warehouse with battery-powered golf carts or forklifts may also fall into that category.”