Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Inside Environmental Emergency Response

My guest, Kathryn Scannell, writes fantasy and erotic romance. Like most writers, she still has a day job, which involves working for an environmental response contractor. Today she’s sharing a little of what it’s like to be part of the official response to an environmental disaster.

We’ve all seen environmental disasters on the news in recent years. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf last summer got a lot of coverage. Most of that coverage is focused on pictures of the disaster, with a few pictures of people in tyvek suits to spice it up. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes.

As an example, let’s look at a smaller incident, which I had some involvement with last summer. At the end of July, there was a major oil spill in the little town of Marshall, Michigan. An underground pipeline delivering oil from Canada to a refinery in the US ruptured one night, releasing oil into the ground. It rapidly found its way to a nearby creek and from there into the Kalamazoo River. The rupture was not immediately discovered, and by the time the problem was understood and it was shut down, and EPA estimates that 819,000 gallons of oil were released. This is a tiny fraction compared to the gulf, but to the people of Marshall if was a disaster. The EPA has a web page with the background, and many pictures for anyone who would like to know more : http://www.epa.gov/enbridgespill/

Response was immediate. Residents in nearby homes were evacuated because oil fumes contain cancer causing chemicals, notably benzene, and there was concern that they were present at levels which would be a health risk. EPA response contractors and responders from Enbridge Oil, which owned the pipeline, converged on the site within hours. At first the response ran around the clock, with people working 12 hours shifts. This continued for roughly a month, until a significant fraction of the spilled oil had been recovered using floating booms, giant vacuum trucks, and excavation equipment to remove contaminated soil. Air monitoring went on around the clock too, to determine if it was safe to allow people to return to their homes.

This kind of effort requires a small army of people to coordinate. When I was there approximately a month after the initial spill, things were settling into a routine. That routine included nearly a thousand contractor employees working on the spill in one capacity or another, from hazmat workers wading in the river and removing oiled vegetation by hand to air boat operators and a helicopter crew, to data managers and map makers working in the incident command center. There were dozens of contractor companies involved, as well as multiple agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, local Hazmat response teams, local public health officials, the US Coast Guard, and Fish and Wildlife personnel.

These diverse entities were all able to coordinate through the magic of the Incident Command System, a structure which was designed in the wake of some of the huge wildfires in the western US, to enable multiple agencies to coordinate with each other efficiently. It designates a single commander for the incident, and allows that structure to override normal ranks and jurisdictional boundaries.

There’s a tremendous amount of support required for this kind of undertaking. All those responders have to have somewhere to sleep, and it would be tremendously inefficient if they were all trying to arrange their own hotel rooms, especially in an area where there isn’t an adequate supply. At the Michigan spill there were people staying as far as an hour and half drive away. In the early stages of the Hurricane Katrina response people were staying in camping trailers. Since many were coming from long distances, there were plane reservations and rental cars to coordinate. Someone has to do all this, and they’re often on-site too.

There were facilities to manage – we were working out of a warehouse and a small fleet of construction trailers when I was there. There were safety people to look out for the well being of the response workers – it’s very common for people to get so focused on the work and the urgency of it that they don’t stop and rest when they should. There was even a laundry service, because if you’re working 12 hour days plus travel time, there isn’t a lot of time for anything else but eating and sleeping. And of course someone has to track all the hours being worked, because those responders are getting paid to be there. (And the Michigan Department of Revenue was right there too, making sure it got its cut – I paid income tax to MI last year in addition to filing in my home state.)

It’s a truly amazing thing to see a big response like that come together, to see how flawlessly people, who don’t know each other and don’t normally work together, can cooperate. I had never met most of the people I worked with before, even the ones from my employer, and may not meet them again unless we end up doing another response together. Our needs far outstripped the capacity of our nearest office, and people with specialized skills were brought in from all over the country. I worked closely with people from our offices in Texas, New Jersey, Arizona, and Illinois while I was there. People on these responses generally rotate in and out, with a shift of overlap with the person you’re replacing, or your replacement, to get up to speed on what’s been happening. You develop checklists and procedures for everything, and you document everything, because that lets you hand off the job to someone with a relatively short transition.

These responses work because of hundreds of dedicated people, most of whom will never get their picture on TV. The individual jobs aren’t glamorous, but the results as a whole are nothing short of amazing. I’ve seen turtles sunning themselves again on a river that a month before was covered in crude oil. Knowing you were a small part of making that happen is a great thing to take home at the end of the day.

EMBRACING THE DRAGON by Kathryn Scannell is available here. You can find her on the web at http://www.kathrynscannell.com.


Anonymous said...

I'm just so grateful that my daughter and I have been safe from the various disasters. Though right now it's raining more here in Virginia than it has for three years! There will be some flooding, but nothing major.

A lot going on with you right now with YOUR books. I need to get your first one read. I need to read a lot of bloggers' books that I've bought. There just aren't enough hours in a day. And there's just so much to do with book promotion, but I AM going to carve out some reading time each day, and keep practicing speed reading! I look forward to getting your second book soon.

Good luck!
Ann Best, Memoir Author

Terry Odell said...

Ann, when we lived in Miami, we took annual hurricane precautions. In Orlando, people assumed that being inland was protection enough.

And thanks for having my books in your TBR pile. I keep a book in the rack of my exercise bike which serves a dual purpose. I want to read so I exercise, and I need to exercise, so the reading is my reward.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It's amazing how these teams work so efficiently in the face of such chaos. There sure have been a lot of disasters lately (and I know what's going on along the Mississippi is really being closely watched.)

Maryannwrites said...

Interesting to get this inside look at what happens when there is a disaster such as an oil spill. A group of activists here in East Texas are trying to stop this oil pipeline from coming through our area. Most people don't know how much more dangerous a spill from the tar-sands oil pipeline can be compared to crude oil. The Sierra Club and other groups dedicated to protecting the earth have extensive information about the dangers.

Kathryn Scannell said...

I have the greatest respect for the people who respond to the immediate human side of these problems too. Any time there's an incident like the Mississippi flooding, the EPA will find things later that need to be cleaned up, but the first thing that will happen is shelters for the evacuees. Those are mostly staffed by volunteers, working under the direction of the Red Cross or local emergency management officials, and they rarely get anywhere near the credit they deserve. So if you know anyone who does that kind of work, don't forget to thank them.

Britt said...

Kathryn, this is very interesting. Excellent detail. Makes me want to stick a disaster in my next book.
I'm curious about the animal welfare groups who get involved with you. Fish and Wildlife would be natural for a disaster that's confined to a rural area. But what about the Mississippi floods, for example? Are SPCA folks involved as part of the response team?
Again, enjoyed this article.
See you in class!

Kathryn Scannell said...

I'm afraid I don't know the answer on the Mississippi floods in specific. I can tell you from experience as a local volunteer that FEMA is now very strongly encouraging shelters to have pet friendly options, after they found that having to leave pets behind was a common reason that people refused to follow evacuation orders.

I volunteer with a local disaster response group in my home community, in addition to the paid work in environmental response I encourage everyone to check out the Community Emergency Response program (http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/) to see if there's one in your area. Even if you don't feel able to participate, most of them happily accept donations for equipment and supplies). One of the things we do is help to staff shelters when the local authorities decide we need one. Our area is prone to lengthy power outages from ice storms, and flooding, although nothing on the scale of the Mississippi situation.

We have some people with special training for operating pet-friendly shelters, and assisting pet owners in disaster situations. I haven't taken it or seen it in action yet (happily - we've had no issues yet this year), so I can't say much beyond the fact that it's being thought about.