Hazardous materials discussed: Q and A

Editors note: Don Shainin, HAZMAT (hazardous materials) coordinator for the New Mexico Office of Emergency Management, was in Clovis on Wednesday to speak with local emergency officials about hazardous chemical reporting, chemical dispersion threats in New Mexico and Clovis and emergency response plans. Shainin served the Albuquerque community as a firefighter for many years and briefly worked in forestry.

Q: What is HAZMAT, and what is your role in all of this?
A: I am the HAZMAT coordinator for the state of New Mexico, and what I deal with mostly is private industry chemical reporting, which is an (Environmental Protection Agency) requirement, that they notify the state of what they are storing, how much of it and information on hazards, emergency plans, evacuation, things that would assist the local fire department or first responder.

Q: In the Clovis area, what are the biggest risks? What are you looking at, as the HAZMAT coordinator, as needing tight scrutiny?
A: You’ve got a pretty large trucking industry here. I’m sure there’s a lot of facilities that deal with chemicals because there’s a lot of crops, so you have pesticides and things like that. You also have a large rail industry, it looks like, and you have a military base, so there’s a lot of possibility of terrorist activity — that would be to steal chemical loads, you know, damage infrastructure, and things like that. So there’s a potential that anywhere you have a chemical facility, you have a potential of a terrorist attack. I’m not thinking of a terrorist as somebody overseas of Arabic decent — that’s what a lot of people stereotype terrorists as. Terrorists can be a drug dealer just looking for chemicals to make meth(amphetamine). And those are probably more prevalent than what we see happening overseas. The goal is to get that information to a first responder that this could be a terrorist activity, to be aware of this. Releasing a chemical in an area that’s populated like Clovis can devastate the community too.

Q: If that did happen, say there was either a terrorist attack, or something was stolen, or there was a large release of chemicals in the Clovis area, what would be the procedure? And at what level would you be involved in that?
A: Probably our office would be notified. As far as the procedures, with terrorist activities the FBI is the lead agency, so initially there would be an investigation. Probably, what our office could offer, is if it is stolen from a facility around here: What the chemical was, how much of it was stored, what are some of the potentials that it could be used for, what would a release (of the chemicals would) do.
Q: Do cities and companies have to keep emergency plans on file?
A: Yeah, part of the requirement is that a facility do an emergency plan if there’s a release or a fire, an explosion, anything like that. That information is usually sent to us at the state and kept on file. Right now a lot of it is in paper copy, which really doesn’t do a whole lot of good. With me being up there, if an incident happened in Clovis, I would hope the local responders would have that information quicker. Some of the programs that I’m looking at have that information on it, so that 911 centers can pull it up and see that this is the emergency procedure if this happens.

Q: How prepared do you think New Mexico is, as a whole, for large dispersions of chemicals?
A: I think we’re a lot more prepared than some states. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to other states to see what kind of systems they have in place — only because I’m searching for something better — and I think we’re way ahead of the curve. A lot of states are still doing paper, some haven’t even implemented any kind of decent programs, and really don’t have much for emergency planning. I think, because of the facilities we have in this state, the military bases, the labs, and some other critical infrastructure, I think we’ve gotten out there and we’ve gone way ahead. I believe we are really prepared.

Q: Does federal funding come into that some?
A: Yes, mostly with the homeland security money that’s been coming in. A lot of that has been moved out to the various agencies and counties to help them prepare and buy equipment. And there’s been quite a bit of it coming in and a lot of good requests have come in for some really useful things.

— Compiled by CNJ staff writer David Irvin