Nearly four years to the day after one of the nation's worst chemical spills forever changed the lives of Alberton residents, the Missoula City Council has launched a citizen-directed task force to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again. The Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety Task Force, created under the leadership of Ward Three Councilmember Lou Ann Crowley, is one of the first of its kind in the nation, composed primarily of private citizens and representatives from local industries working together to reduce the risks posed by the transportation of hazardous materials.
"The focus of all our emergency responders is response," says Crowley. "We are going to focus on prevention."
Missoula County's emergency planners have identified hazardous materials (or "haz-mat") accidents as the single greatest threat to life, property and the environment in the Missoula Valley, not only because of the danger they pose but because of their high probability, due to the sheer quantity and variety of toxic materials that travel through Missoula every day. While the founders of the task force are not questioning the preparedness of local emergency responders to handle haz-mat incidents, the fact remains that until now, more resources have been devoted to cleaning up accidents than preventing them.
One of the greatest challenges of the task force, which met for the first time last Thursday, is the sheer magnitude of the task before them. Every day, thousands of hazardous materials move through the Missoula Valley by virtually every means of transportation, from train tankers and commercial aircraft to private cars and trucks, with hundreds of new chemicals introduced to the market each year. Depending upon their properties, quantities and mode of travel, they are regulated by a tangled web of state and federal laws, statues and regulatory agencies.
"The universe of chemical accidents within the United States cannot now be accurately tallied. No comprehensive, reliable historical records exist." This according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazardous Investigation Board, an independent governmental agency that tracks and studies the causes of hazardous materials accidents. "Further, the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that many accidents occurring today at fixed facilities and during transport are not reported to the federal government."
While agencies like the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration regulate the types and quantities of hazardous materials that may be carried on highways and railroads—some 4 billion tons annually—critics argue that both the trucking and railroad industries remain largely exempt from public right-to-know laws. This means that trucking firms and railroad companies are not required to provide local haz- mat agencies with comprehensive lists, or even periodic summaries, of the hazardous materials they carry.
Obviously, accidents like the Alberton derailment and the Yellowstone Pipe Line leak in the Flathead Valley have focused public attention on the large transporters of hazardous materials. However, as Missoula County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Silverman points out, it is just as often the small, unregulated carriers of hazardous materials who pose a tremendous risk to public safety.
"The problem usually isn’t with the big companies that transport on a regular basis," says Silverman. "It's Joe farmer who's going up to Arlee with a truck full of pesiticides, and who isn't required by law to report any of it." In fact, such was the case several years ago when a privately owned truck overturned on Hwy. 93 near St. Ignatius, spilling at least 81 different chemicals.
"Education is probably the safest, the fastest and the easiest cure," says Smurfit-Stone Container representative and task force member Steve Hess. "But you're always going to have those employers out there that are trying to save a buck. There's always going to be that meth lab mentality."
Emergency planners acknowledge that just knowing what chemicals are in transit at any given time will not necessarily make the community any safer, or their jobs any easier.
"Knowing what is being transported on a day-to-day basis is not going to change how we respond," says Frenchtown Fire Department Chief Scott Waldron. "We need to address the kinds of problems we can change."
Among the changes suggested during the meeting were establishing preferred transportation corridors through town with street signs that tell truckers where hazardous cargoes should be routed. (The Missoula Fire Department is currently working on such a plan.) The committee also discussed the possibility of creating public service announcements and educational pamphlets that could be handed out to retailers who sell hazardous materials to the public, advising them on safe methods for their transport, use and disposal. Likewise, a web site similar to the one maintained by the City of Eugene, Ore., which lists all local handlers of hazardous materials, the chemicals used and their qualities, could help the public remain better informed about the chemicals in daily use in their community.
The task force also discussed boosting law enforcement monitoring of hazardous materials transporters, such as verifying required shipping manifests and verifying DOT placards on trucks, which would send a strong message to carriers who routinely travel through Missoula.
"It wouldn't take two months for every trucking firm in the country to know that Missoula, Montana is serious about how hazardous materials are handled here," says Hess.
The task force is seeking more members from the community. Interested parties can call Lou Ann Crowley at 721-4331 or the City Clerk’s Office at 543-4705.