Op-Ed: MassDEP On Duty, On Guard for the Environment

By Kenneth KimmellGuest Column
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DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmel
It was July 27, 2010, when a tractor-trailer carrying approximately 40,000 pounds of waste acid pulled into the Blandford service plaza along the westbound lane of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The truck driver noticed liquid leaking from the back of the trailer, and he contacted state police. The police quickly evacuated the area and called in emergency personnel, including the emergency response team from the Springfield office of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

What the ER teams found were a number of 300-plus-gallon containers of acid leaking into the trailer and into the environment.

At the scene, there were several pressing questions that needed answers: Was the acid contaminating the air and threatening the health of those nearby? Did a larger area need to be evacuated due to this threat and were motorists on the Pike threatened? Was the acid a threat to any other natural resources in the area?

MassDEP's highly trained ER unit was joined by the agency's FAST (Field Assessment and Support Team) mobile laboratory, and together, MassDEP was able to provide the answers.

The FAST mobile lab activated its weather station and began assessing the air quality monitoring efforts at the scene. Did the release of sulfuric acid, hydrofluoric acid and nitric acid vapors pose a threat to anyone nearby?

MassDEP was able to determine that acid vapors down-wind were detected at very low levels and they were blowing away from the highway and nearby rest stop buildings. The acid spill was not a threat to groundwater or drinking water resources areas, and the planned transfer of the acid containers from the trailer would not create any exothermic reactions or explosions.

By reaching these important environmental results quickly, MassDEP helped the emergency responders address the situation in a timely manner and allow the busy area to return to normal as quickly as possible.

The Blandford acid spill is a dramatic example of the type of work we do every day at MassDEP: protecting the environment, safeguarding the public health, and promoting economic growth.

In recent months, in communities all across the western part of the commonwealth, MassDEP's emergency responders, inspectors, scientists and engineers have responded at all hours of the day and night to events such as the acid spill, oil tanker spills to the environment, chemical explosions, a mud slide, and chemical fires.

And we've done all of this work and much more with a budget and a staff that has sustained significant reductions over the years. Since 2002, MassDEP's budget has been reduced from $62.9 million to $46.4 million, and our staff has been cut back from 1,200 to 840 – the lowest levels since the mid-1980s. But even as it absorbed these cuts made necessary by a national recession, MassDEP's environmental responsibilities expanded.

Under Gov. Deval Patrick, Massachusetts is rebounding from the recession faster and stronger than many other parts of the country. However, the state budget takes longer to recover than the economy, and so state resources remain tight. For that reason, MassDEP strongly supports the governor's proposed state budget that would fund our agency at $51 million, allowing MassDEP to maintain its core environmental mission, increase recycling assistance to local communities and to continue to respond in a way that makes a positive difference to our residents and businesses.

It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond with our FAST vehicle to acid spill incidents, protecting the public and making sure that the acid vapors don’t threaten the public health.

It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to situations such the drum explosion that occurred in March at the Balise Honda dealership in West Springfield. A drum containing a petroleum-based tire dressing exploded and caught fire, fatally injuring an employee of a contracted professional detailing company. MassDEP personnel deployed booms to contain the sheen on a nearby retention pond after firefighting water ran off of the site.

It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to a situation like that at the Bandag Tire Co. in Chicopee, which was partially destroyed by an overnight fire in late March. MassDEP identified areas of significant on-site and off-site impacts from chemicals in the firefighting run-off water. The agency was able to work with the company and its environmental professionals to ensure that impacts to soil and groundwater from the chemicals will be quickly assessed and addressed.

And it will allow MassDEP to continue to reduce air pollutants from industrial sources, protect wetlands from illegal alteration, and support renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The commonwealth's investment in MassDEP reaps environmental, public health and economic development benefits that help to sustain our quality of life. A reduction in funding puts that important work at risk.

Kenneth Kimmell is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. For more information about MassDEP, turn to www.mass.gov/dep.
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