MassDEP: on duty and on-guard for the environment
By Kenneth Kimmell
It was just before 8 a.m. last Wednesday when two reactive chemicals were mistakenly mixed by workers at the G&W Foundry in Rehoboth. It resulted in an out-of-control exothermic reaction that ignited a fire in the rear of the 60,000-square-foot building at 128 Bay State Road. The four-alarm fire spread quickly as steel beams melted, the roof collapsed and heavy smoke billowed 100 feet in the air and traveled north toward Route 44.
As fire destroyed the building, the primary concerns were homes and two elementary schools, the Palmer River and Beckwith schools, located approximately 2,000 feet downwind of the incident. There was also firefighting water running into a nearby brook, so the release of chemicals was a real possibility.
At the scene, there were several pressing questions that needed answers: Were air contaminants threatening the health of nearby residents and students? Did the homes or the schools need to be evacuated? Was chemical run-off polluting the waters of the brook or groundwater in the area?
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) jumped into action that day, and provided the answers.
MassDEP’s FAST (Field Assessment and Support Team) mobile laboratory, manned by a highly trained crew, immediately obtained air samples within the downwind neighborhood area, and water samples from the site and brook. Using sophisticated testing equipment, MassDEP scientists were able to quickly determine that there were no air quality problems for residents, and mostly trace levels of chemicals on the site and in the brook.
By getting these important environmental results so quickly, MassDEP allowed the firefighters to focus on other important issues at the site and gave comfort to local residents and officials that they were not in danger.
The Rehoboth fire is a dramatic example of the type of work we do every day at MassDEP: protecting the environment, safeguarding the public health, and promoting economic growth.
In recent weeks, in communities all across Cape Cod and the southeastern corner of the Commonwealth, MassDEP’s emergency responders, inspectors, scientists and engineers have responded at all hours of the day and night to events such as the foundry fire, oil tanker spills to the environment, mercury spills, a wastewater plant sewer disk spill, transformer oil spills, and chemical drum situations.
And we’ve done all of this work and much more with a budget and a staff that has sustained significant reductions over the years. Since 2002, MassDEP’s budget has been reduced from $62.9 million to $46.4 million, and our staff has been cut back from 1,200 to 840 – the lowest levels since the mid-1980s. But even as it absorbed these cuts made necessary by a national recession, MassDEP’s environmental responsibilities expanded.
Under Governor Patrick, Massachusetts is rebounding from the recession faster and stronger than many other parts of the country. However, the state budget takes longer to recover than the economy, and so state resources remain tight. For that reason, MassDEP strongly supports the Governor’s proposed state budget that would fund our agency at $51 million, allowing MassDEP to maintain its core environmental mission, increase recycling assistance to local communities and to continue to respond in a way that makes a positive difference to our residents and businesses.
It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond with our FAST vehicle to foundry-type fires, protecting the public and making sure that chemicals don’t run-off into sensitive resources.
It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to situations such as the oil tanker rollover in Dartmouth earlier this year. The truck rolled over on Old Westport Road and spilled approximately 640 gallons of oil to the environment. The local fire department utilized the MassDEP-supplied Spill Response Trailer to contain the oil until MassDEP’s emergency response unit arrived to perform containment measures and assess damage to the wetlands located downstream.
It will allow MassDEP to bring in our experts when improperly stored chemical drums become a problem. MassDEP was alerted to such a situation recently by the Carver Board of Health. We confirmed the presence of numerous drums containing chemicals in a building that was in poor condition and the target of frequent break-ins. MassDEP required the owner to properly remove all oils and hazardous materials from the building, averting a potentially serious situation.
And it will allow MassDEP to continue to reduce air pollutants from industrial sources, protect wetlands from illegal alteration, and support renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Commonwealth’s investment in MassDEP reaps environmental, public health and economic development benefits that help to sustain our quality of life. A reduction in funding puts that important work at risk.
Kenneth Kimmell is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Click here for more information about MassDEP.