Juneau considers funding hazmat team

Posted: Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Juneau is slated to receive a $300,000 federal grant for hazmat equipment, but will need to shell out between $73,000 and $153,000 annually to use it.

Southeast Alaska doesn't have a team of people that can handle a serious incident involving hazardous materials. Although Juneau's fire and police officials are trained to recognize a hazardous chemical spill, the city typically would call Anchorage's hazmat team for assistance, said Cheryl Easterwood, the city's disaster plan manager.

"At an awareness level you're taught to approach a situation that may involve hazardous chemicals ... take steps so you don't contaminate yourself, keep people at a safe distance and get qualified people to the scene," she said of Juneau's current capabilities.

Having a team in Juneau would put people with more training on scene faster, she said. The federal money would be used to buy protective suits, air tanks and equipment for decontamination, detection and communications.

The city will have to pay to train people and maintain the equipment, Easterwood said. Plans call for a 12-person team made up of existing city employees. The cost to the city might range from $73,000 to $153,000 annually, she said.

"We have an opportunity, but it doesn't come cheaply," she said.

The state, which received the money from the U.S. Department of Justice for "domestic preparedness," decided equipment for hazardous materials teams in Juneau and Valdez were top priorities, Easterwood said. The Juneau Assembly, after hearing from hazmat experts Monday, decided to review the expenditure at a future Finance Committee meeting.

In Southeast Alaska, most hazardous spills involve ammonia or chlorine, said Bob Mattson, on-scene coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. In Juneau, officials have dealt with a gas smell at Floyd Dryden Middle School in 1999, a methamphetamine lab on Back Loop Road in 2000, and a formaldehyde spill downtown in 1998, he said.

Anchorage's hazmat team responded to an accidental release of chlorine gas at Alaska Pacific University's swimming pool last year that sent 57 people to the hospital, said Tom Wells, the hazardous materials and counter-terrorism coordinator in Anchorage. The team has 46 members who also work for the fire department, he said. They receive about 250 hours of training a year.

A hazmat team in Fairbanks is made up of volunteer firefighters, transportation industry employees and military personnel, Wells said.

The Juneau team would cover all of Southeast Alaska. If members were called to an incident outside of Juneau, the state would reimburse the city for the response, Mattson said. The city has until 2004 to accept the federal grant for equipment, Easterwood said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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