Though the long-term effects of last month’s chemical spill near the agricultural station on Interstate 80 are still unknown, Truckee’s emergency services managers are acutely aware that it could have been much worse.
Had the incident involved, for example, a large spill of anhydrous ammonia ” a caustic chemical used in farming applications and routinely transported across the country via truck ” rather than the relatively benign solvent heptane, Truckee’s emergency response crews might have faced a full-fledged disaster.
With hundreds of train cars, many containing toxic chemicals, passing through town on the Union Pacific tracks each month, even more tanker and delivery trucks driving by on Interstate 80, and the trans-Sierra fuel pipeline running underground, Truckee fire Chief Mike Terwilliger knows that the hazardous material emergency response team maintained by the Truckee Fire Protection District could be called upon at any time.
“There’s a cost to it, but in my mind it’s a service this community needs,” Terwilliger said. “We’ve got a railroad coming right through town. There was a derailment right out here in 1988 or something.
“You look at the tank cars that go though this town sometimes and it’s pretty spooky ” there’s some weird stuff … I’m actually amazed that we haven’t had more incidents.”
While there have been few major accidents involving toxic chemicals or other hazardous materials in Truckee, the 15-person hazmat team managed by the Truckee Fire Protection District is prepared to deal with almost anything that does occur.
In existence since 1991, and made up of employees of the Truckee, Donner Summit, North Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe fire departments, as well as the Truckee Sanitary District, the local hazmat team received a big boost in 2001, when the Placer County Office of Emergency Services supplied them with a hazmat command truck loaded with approximately $500,000 worth of equipment. The gear came through a contract with Placer County that requires Truckee Fire to respond to hazmat emergencies in eastern Placer area.
“Because it’s contracted with Placer County, we do take it over to Lake Tahoe and that area,” Terwilliger said. “It’s available to respond to eastern Placer County, or if there’s a major spill, it’ll go to western Placer County if they need another team over there.”
Additional gear for the hazmat team have been supplied by Nevada County and the Truckee Fire Protection District, meaning that the Truckee hazmat team has an arsenal of sophisticated detection and containment equipment at its disposal when responding to unknown chemical spills throughout the region. However, they do not provide cleanup services.
“The company that caused the spill is responsible for hiring a company to come out and clean it up,” Terwilliger said. “We don’t have that capability. We’re more for first response, scene safety and [chemical] identification.”
Typically the Truckee Fire hazmat team will respond to approximately 12 hazmat incidents per year, Terwilliger estimated, though not all of them require drastic action.
“Sometimes they’re not as spectacular as closing the freeway for eight hours. A lot of times it’s an odd smell in a building that people can’t figure out. And we have detectors and monitors on there that help tell us what it is,” he said.
According to both Terwilliger and Beverly Brink, director of emergency services for Tahoe Forest Hospital, one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with a large-scale hazmat incident can be keeping people who have been exposed to toxic chemicals from contaminating others.
“You worry about the ones out in the field, but then you know that the fire department is there, and they’re giving you a heads up. It’s when you have people arriving in the ER before we even know about the disaster that causes problems,” Brink said.
Tahoe Forest Hospital is equipped with decontamination showers and tents, protective clothing for staff, hot water in the ambulance bay for hosing people off and other equipment for dealing with victims who have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
All emergency room staff are trained to handle such victims, and other hospital personnel have additional training in dealing with potentially hazardous substances, said Brink.
In order to keep its staff up to speed, the hospital conducts two disaster scenarios each year in order to analyze any procedural weaknesses and other challenges they might encounter, and past scenarios have dealt with chemical spills and hazmat disasters.
But while the hospital staff has been trained to deal with such incidents, the limited space and staff at the hospital would mean that, in the event of a large-scale disaster, some victims might have to be treated in the field or at other facilities.
“Would we be able to handle the influx [of victims] right here at the hospital? Probably not for 100 people,” Brink said. “But we have systems in place where we can hopefully keep those who are less injured farther away from here, and have it so that the more injured are brought to the hospital.”
While tanker trucks and other vehicles transporting hazardous materials on Interstate 80 are a big concern for Truckee’s hazmat team, another significant risk comes from the hundreds of tanker cars rolling through town on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
“Typically, in [the Truckee] area, about five percent of everything we haul would fall into the category of hazardous,” estimated Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley.
Bromley said most chemical releases are caused by leaking seals or valves, or the improper securing of cars rather than derailments.
If a chemical spill was detected on the railroad in the area, Bromley said, Union Pacific would send specially trained agents to help coordinate local responders and call in any additional resources from their Roseville or Omaha, Neb., offices.
However, the thought of a 20,000 gallon tanker car breaking open and spilling toxic chemicals in town or in the Truckee River is enough to make Chief Terwilliger anxious.
“If we get a train derailment, it’s far beyond anything our hazmat team can deal with. We can identify what spilled, we can get everybody away from it, but those are environmental nightmares,” he said. “We’d go and work closely with the police department and everything, but we don’t want that to happen here. It would shut this place down for months.”
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As of Wednesday, 78,186 doses have been administered to Nevada County residents, according to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard.