Emergency Response Report: Volunteers Dedicated,
But Lack Equipment and Training

November 1995

Three case studies show need for more coordination, training, and equipment

The Eureka County Board of Commissioners recently issued a report on the county's ability to respond to shipments of nuclear waste through the county in the event that the Yucca Mountain repository becomes operational.

A study of three hazardous waste incidents in Eureka County shows that the country has a large number of dedicated volunteer emergency responders, but lacks adequate training and equipment for them. In addition, the study found that access to a hazardous materials team may be inadequate for future needs.

The report evaluated three past hazardous waste incidents -- a fire at the Newmont Mine in a northern Eureka County; a roll-over accident at I-80 a few miles west of Carlin involving a van loaded with explosives; and a fire at the Barrick Goldstrike Mine in northern Eureka County.

In all three hazardous waste incidents, the study found that the number of responders and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) was adequate. It cited the dedicated involvement of both individual volunteers and crews from private companies such as mines and chemical companies, a reinvigorated Local Emergency Planning Committee, and a near-complete Mutual Aid Agreement. In general, the report found that local emergency responders worked well together.

Report shows lack of cooperation from state, federal agencies

However, communication and cooperation among local responders and state and federal agencies were found to be somewhat lacking. Response time was often a factor, and insufficient training and inadequate equipment often adversely affected the outcomes of the hazardous waste incidents.

Example -- a van roll over on August 3, 1993, involving weapons, explosives, and chemicals. The study shows that local responders did not receive ful cooperation from state and federal agencies, and a hazardous materials team did not arrive on site until six hours after the explosives were discovered.

As a result, a 42-mile stretch of I-80 remained closed for 16 hours. As it turned out, a chemist from Newmont Gold Mine, together with members of the Wendover hazmat team, helped identify the explosives and chemicals.

In two of the accidents, a fire at the Newmont Gold Mine on November 3, 1994, and a fire at the Barrick Goldstrike refinery on April 15, 1994, inadequate equipment and training by the mines' own volunteer crews were found to be factors that adversely affected emergency response. The report states that in both incidents, self-contained breathing apparatus were in short supply, emergency response equipment was either old or not available, and training and communication were often inadequate.

Insufficient training and equipment a factor

The report also recognizes that a lack of control and coordination, coupled with separate teams of emergency responders who had not trained together, led to confusion in response to the mine fires. A lack of hand-held radios or field programmable-radios was also though to complicate matters. As a result, not all the responders could communicate by radio with each other. In each case, no incident command post was initially instituted, which led to confusion and a lack of coordination. One fire fighter died in the Barrick Goldstrike fire.

Although all three incidents were successfully resolved, emergency responders themselves stated that luck often played a major role in emergency response.

Sandy Green, project coordinator for the Eureka County Yucca Mountain Information Office, says luck won't be good enough if the county is required to handle radioactive waste emergencies. In addition, it is unclear who would foot the bill for the sophisticated equipment required for handling radioactive waste emergencies.

In the even of a nuclear incident, local emergency responders would be the first to reach an emergency site and would be responsible for setting up command posts and activating communication with outside agencies. The report showed inadequacies in both areas.

Green questioned whether volunteers cold donate the time for the extensive training that might be required to learn how to appropriately handle a nuclear incident.

"I don't know if you can just rely on volunteers for emergency response for these incidents, it's a big, big responsibility," Green said. "The Department of Energy may have to provide trained professionals for initial response."

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