Emergency Response and Management Activities
Each quarter, EPA will post new emergency management activities from around the country, highlighting various accomplishments over the past several months. These activities showcase EPA’s unique emergency response capabilities through the use of cutting-edge technologies and innovative cleanup strategies.
- Summer 2014
- Spring 2014
- Winter 2014
- Summer 2013
- Spring 2013
- Emergency Management on EPA's Greenversations Blogs
- News Releases
- Regional Removal and Emergency Response Sites
- Regional Newsletters
On August 21, 2008, a fire broke out at a tire recycling facility operated by Integrated Waste Management (IWM) in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. The smell of burning tires was noticeable throughout the surrounding community. The fire was partially extinguished, but it continued to smolder for the next several years. After several unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire, the Puerto Rico Environmental Control Board (EQB) asked EPA to take over on March 13, 2014.
EPA collected air, soil, and surface water samples and also conducted air monitoring. Two EPA On-Scene Coordinators (OSCs) identified potential hazards involving:
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
- heavy metals,
- pyrolytic oil, and
- semi-volatile organic compounds.
The OSCs determined the best course of action was to dismantle the burning tire pile. EPA developed a work plan with the Puerto Rico EQB, Fire Department (PRFD), Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PR DNER), and the PR National Guard.
EPA removed and quenched the smoldering material, relocated it to staging areas, and sampled it to determine how best to dispose it. EPA also provided information to the community about the potential dangers of the fire. Puerto Rico EQB conducted air monitoring in the communities and removed the remaining tires. PRFD suppressed the fire, and PR DNER and National Guard supplied equipment for road clearing and creating fire breaks.
After three weeks of work and coordination with Puerto Rico agencies, the fire was officially extinguished on April 24.
A strong partnership between EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has helped lead to a new understanding about MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether). At one time, it was believed that MTBE contamination could not be removed from groundwater, but new information developed by EPA and PADEP has developed a promising fix.
The partnership began when PADEP requested EPA assistance to address the contamination of private drinking water wells in Lehman Township, PA. The drinking water wells contained MTBE and another contaminant known as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes). MTBE and BTEX are gasoline additives.
The pollution source was not initially clear, but an EPA investigation determined that both contaminants came from a leaking underground storage tank at a gas station in the area. The investigation also showed that MTBE-contaminated groundwater travelled ahead of the BTEX contamination.
This information led to a treatment plan that involved PADEP installing and operating a large scale treatment system that used carbon treatment and air stripping technology. Bacteria and solids were removed from the water using settling tanks and filter presses prior to treatment.
PADEP utilized this process to treat the groundwater for 10 years, and in 2013, EPA monitoring wells confirmed the cleanup of MTBE and BTEX from the groundwater. This was one of the first successful treatments of MTBE in groundwater.
EPA Region 9 Partners with State and Federal Agencies to Clean Up Abandoned Wrecks in Oakland Harbor
In September 2013, EPA led a federal and state effort to address oil and hazardous substances that were released from abandoned wrecks in the Oakland Estuary in Oakland, CA. More than 50 abandoned wrecks and other marine debris were the focus of the clean-up effort, including docks, piers, pilings, and four sunken commercial vessels.
The biggest challenge was getting oil and hazardous material off of sunken vessels. The vessels were evaluated using underwater video, side-scanning sonar, and professional divers to determine if they could be salvaged.
Once the vessels were raised from the water, EPA took the lead on hazardous substance assessment, removal, and disposal. Asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, which are known to cause cancer, and heavy metals were detected after samples were taken from the vessels. The State of California handled solid waste disposal and the U.S. Coast Guard was in charge of oil clean up.
Through this partnership, more than 100 tons of hazardous materials were disposed of in March 2014, including:
- Approximately 98 tons of asbestos and waste paint,
- more than 1,000 gallons of flammable liquids and waste oils,
- 160 pounds of acidic and toxic liquids,
- 60 units of expired marine flares and batteries, and
- 1,700 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and debris.
EPA Called to Respond to Colorado's Epic Flood
Heavy rain began falling in Boulder County, Colorado, on September 9, 2013. Over the next five days flooding would claim four lives, knock out bridges, destroy homes and cars, displace thousands of residents, and ravage the Colorado countryside.
Boulder and Larimer Counties had to reckon with potential leaks from thousands of containers of unknown chemicals. In addition, cars full of oil and gas, refrigerators leaking Freon, and propane tanks dislodged into raging waters had to be managed.
Our first task was to address the hazardous materials releases. On-Scene Coordinators were deployed in helicopters to get aerial views of the two-county area, where they witnessed oil spills and broad devastation. Response crews recovered 35 cars, 329 propane tanks, 259 refrigerators and freezers, 47 batteries, 198 drums, more than 9,000 containers, and many other items.
EPA also had to make sure that flooding didn’t damage two cleanup sites in the Lefthand Creek Watershed, approximately 20 miles northwest of Boulder. The site improvements at Elysian Park Tailings were partially destroyed by raging waters that carved out sections of the main road and sent tailings into James Creek. EPA brought in heavy equipment to restore the channel, armored the banks, and restored the cap.
Further upstream, the storm threatened the second cleanup site where mine tailings lined the banks of James Creek. A previous effort from 2005, stabilized the creek banks with cement pillow armoring, preventing heavy metals-laden mine waste from entering the stream. The armoring endured the floods, but required stabilization and restoration, saving Jamestown from being inundated by an estimated 25,000 cubic yards of mine remnants.
EPA’s repair of these old clean-up sites and its response to the dangerous flooding provided critical support that the counties needed to recover from the storm.
EPA Protects Mississippi Community from Toxic Ricin
In April 2013, letters containing ricin addressed to the President, a Mississippi United States Senator, and a Mississippi county judge were intercepted at a mail handling facility.
Ricin is a toxin extracted from castor beans. There is no antidote and even small doses can cause severe respiratory distress, lung damage, and death.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a suspect and found more ricin at a martial arts studio and a trailer house in the Tupelo, Mississippi area. Before those spaces could be re-occupied, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality requested assistance from EPA Region 4 to evaluate and decontaminate the locations.
EPA dispatched On-Scene Coordinators (OSC), who drew upon expertise from other EPA OSCs, EPA’s Consequence Management Advisory Team and National Homeland Security Team. EPA’s good relationship with the State of Mississippi enabled effective lab support and fast-tracking of waste disposal. Through these resources, EPA evaluated and completed the decontamination of the locations in only three days.
EPA Tackles Historical Radiation Contamination in Ridgewood, NY
The Wolff-Alport Chemical Company operated a facility in Ridgewood, New York, near the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Around 1940, the company began importing monazite sand, processing it to extract and sell rare elements to various companies. Monazite sand residues contain thorium and uranium, to a lesser degree. The byproducts from these substances were disposed into a nearby sewer, and other wastes might have been buried on the property until the facility closed in 1954.
Investigations confirmed surface radiological contamination, as well as radiation inside portions of buildings on the site. Deep soil contamination, thoron gas, and radon gas were also found, and there were indications that contamination had spread off site.
These results prompted EPA to address the health risks of exposure to the radiation. Beginning in 2012, EPA focused on areas with the highest levels of radiation, including a rail spur behind the buildings, spaces inside, and nearby sidewalks and streets. EPA found increased radon levels in one of the businesses and installed a remediation system.
By December 2013, construction of thick raised concrete and lead floors was completed in a warehouse bay and a neighboring auto body shop to protect workers. EPA helped the warehouse and auto body shop owners move and store their equipment to minimize impacts.
Testing was also performed at a nearby daycare center and school, but no heightened radiation was found. The project was completed after a fence was installed around the rail spur and shielding was constructed around the sidewalk outside.
EPA Helps Restore Historic Tribal Site Near Eureka, CA
Indian Island is located in Humboldt Bay near Eureka, CA. Only accessible by boat, the island is historically significant because it was the location of the Tuluwat Village of the
Wiyot Tribe. A six-acre area on the island is made of shells and sand deposited over thousands of years and contains tools, artifacts, and human remains dated to 900 A.D.
The site is also the location of the Wiyot Annual World Renewal Ceremony. The tribe has been unable to resume the historical use of the island since a massacre occurred there in 1860. In 1870, a ship dry dock and repair facility was constructed and operated sporadically through the 1970s. Ships were pulled ashore on steel rails, and a variety of chemical wood preservatives and paints were used.
Contamination from the preservatives and paints made the site unusable as a location for the Annual World Renewal Ceremony. The Wiyot Tribe reacquired the site in 2000 and has been working to restore it to its original condition. In 2004, the Wiyot Tribe began removing debris and some contamination.
EPA came to the Tribe’s aid in July 2013 and was granted unprecedented access to the site. EPA then graded and installed a cap to prevent contaminated debris and sediment from entering Humboldt Bay and endangering human health. This allowed the Tribe to begin reconstruction of the site. Now that the contamination threat has been mitigated, the Tribe plans to hold the World Renewal Ceremony in February 2014 for the first time in 150 years. This would not have been possible without the assistance provided by EPA.
Historical Pollution Concerns Spring EPA into Action in Oakland, CA
Lead contamination is a problem affecting many communities across the country. It’s often at its worst in the oldest neighborhoods in urban areas. Communities have been dealing with the legacy of these historical problems for decades. South Prescott in West Oakland is one example of a neighborhood that has dealt with the long-term effects of pollution.
Lead poisoning can cause many symptoms, including abdominal pain, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and headaches. South Prescott is one of the worst neighborhoods for lead poisoning in Alameda County.
Lead contamination from nearby rail yards, industry, freeways, port activities, and mass transit presented challenges that required an innovative solution. EPA started cleanup efforts by sampling the soil at more than 50 homes and found that 80 percent contained high lead levels.
The next step was to meet with individual residents and community groups to share the findings. EPA worked with the community to develop a cleanup plan that incorporated three goals:
- protect high risk populations from lead contamination;
- minimize impacts to the community and the environment from the cleanup; and
- use local resources, including the talents of local workers, to perform the cleanup.
The plan was a “treat, lock, and cover” cleanup approach that used readily available phosphate to reduce risk of exposure and installing a “green cap.” This was received with great enthusiasm by the residents because it minimized the disruption to their community.
Local workers also got involved in the cleanup after we trained them in hazardous waste cleanup techniques. By the time cleanup was done, EPA addressed contamination at more than at 150 homes.
EPA and Oregon State University Improve Chemical Safety in Labs
In June 2013, EPA responded to a serious threat of release of hazardous substances at several labs at State University (OSU) in Corvallis, Oregon. The problems were discovered by EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality after a waste compliance inspection. Haphazard storage of very old, dangerous, and unstable chemicals could have
easily caused fire, explosion, health risks, and release of hazardous materials to the environment.
After this discovery, EPA oversaw the removal of the chemicals at the request of the state. EPA invited the Corvallis Fire Department (CFD) to participate and learned that CFD had documented the same problems at the labs for many years. It was also discovered that OSU’s own policies prevented proper chemical handling and safety without permission from professors or graduate students.
Under EPA direction, OSU began addressing the chemicals and allowed inspection and chemical handling procedures at the laboratories for the first time. Five new lab and safety inspectors were hired, and a chemical audit program was developed for the labs.
EPA’s involvement prompted OSU to address threats to human health and the environment on its campus. It also helped push some fundamental changes, so these kinds of conditions would not occur in the future. CFD thanked EPA for helping to bring important changes and a safer environment for students, faculty, and staff at OSU.
EPA Leads Effort to Provide Clean Drinking Water to Stony Hill, NC
On July 10, 2012, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) requested EPA assistance providing drinking water to residents of Stony Hill. Unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) had been discovered in their drinking water wells.
TCE is one of the most common contaminants of groundwater in the United States. It is known to cause cancer, and it has been associated with birth defects and developmental problems in young children. TCE is not only a drinking water hazard, but exposure also occurs through inhalation during common household activities such as showering and bathing.
Within 24 hours of receiving the request, EPA delivered bottled water to residents with impacted water supplies. By September, drinking water samples had been collected for more than 100 homes to determine the extent of the contamination. TCE was present at levels more than 65 times what is considered safe. EPA also installed whole-house water filters at the impacted homes and conducted additional sampling to ensure the filters were working properly.
EPA then collaborated with NCDENR, the county health department, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and a private water company to find a permanent solution. By June 2013, a community water line was extended to the 22 homes impacted by the contamination.
The success of the project was a direct result of EPA working together with several state agencies and the privately-owned water system. Their support made this government-private partnership work, and resulted in a permanent solution that addressed the potential dangers of TCE in Stony Hill.
School in Wyoming Reopens Quickly After Mercury Spill
On Thursday, February 28, 2013, more than 150 students and staff were evacuated from Big Piney High School in Big Piney, WY, after high concentrations of mercury vapor were discovered near the school’s entrance. Approximately seven pounds of elemental mercury were spilled in a storage closet the previous day. The spill was not reported immediately, and mercury was spread to other parts of the school.
Mercury is a liquid at normal room temperature, but it easily becomes a vapor as temperature rises and is extremely toxic when inhaled.
EPA arrived at the school and confirmed the high mercury reading inside the school’s main entrance. Classes were canceled for the following day, and extensive cleanup efforts over the weekend led to the school’s partial reopening on Monday. Although a portion of the school remained sealed off with plastic sheeting while decontamination efforts continued.
Cleanup efforts of the storage closet and classroom next door included:
- cleaning or disposing of the contents of the storage closet,
- removal of ceiling and floor tiles, and
- vacuuming and washing surface areas with mercury soap, applying sealant to the walls and epoxy on the floors.
- Desks and stools were taken to a heated area to drive off the mercury vapor and were then washed.
The building was vented strategically to enable the flow of air to the outside.
EPA also attempted to decontaminate some of the school’s equipment, including a telescope, microscopes, human skeletal and anatomy models, laptop computers and other electronics. After multiple cleanings and ventings, the telescope and microscopes were still not safe to use, but the other items were successfully decontaminated. By the morning of March 6th, mercury readings were at acceptable levels in all sections of the school.
Sublette County School District sent a letter of appreciation, commending EPA’s quick response that protected students and faculty from harmful mercury vapors.
EPA Removes Perchlorate Contamination in Barstow, CA
In November 2010, the Golden State Water Company detected perchlorate in the drinking water supply of Barstow, CA that exceeded safety limits set by the state. Golden State advised its customers against drinking the water until further notice, and the Governor declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino County. In December 2010, California requested assistance from EPA to investigate sources of the perchlorate contamination.
Barstow was also home to Mohave Pyrotechnics, a pyrotechnics manufacturing company that used perchloric acid, a chemical used in rocket fuel, fireworks, flares and explosives. Perchlorate can interfere with the thyroid gland.
EPA began assessing the situation in March 2011, focusing on the residential property of the former owner and operator of the Mohave Pyrotechnics manufacturing facility. Perchlorate sampling was conducted at two distinct areas on the property, extending to groundwater. EPA collected more than 200 soil samples from the residence and uncovered a layer of highly concentrated perchlorate in a garden adjacent to the residence.
Thanks to considerable planning efforts, EPA was able to begin removing contaminated soil in December 2012 and complete the process in less than a month. More than 1,000 tons of perchlorate contaminated soil was excavated, transported and disposed. The excavated areas were lined before being backfilled with clean soil.
Abandoned Drums Found and Removed near Poplar Bluff, MO
In March of 2012, EPA responded to a citizen’s tip that there were leaking drums at a facility operated by the Southern Machine and Tool Company (SMT). SMT was founded in 1968 and was permitted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) as a generator of hazardous waste. However, SMT never submitted details of any waste disposal activity, and MDNR deactivated the permit. The facility was later left unattended for years.
EPA tracked down the current owner of the property and found more than 600 bulging and leaking drums and containers of hazardous substances. In addition, sheds that once protected the drums had fallen, creating additional hazards.
As EPA’s cleanup began in June 2012, crews spent a lot of effort removing debris and decaying structures just to get to the hazardous materials. Once the containers were accessed, EPA removed and consolidated the contaminated liquids they contained. EPA then crushed the empty drums for disposal as solid waste. By the end of July, the liquid and solid wastes were removed from the site for safe disposal.
With the waste removed, the next step was to investigate the underlying soil for more contamination. EPA collected soil and water samples from the surface and below the surface, and determined that soil needed to be excavated up to two feet in six areas. As a result, more than 60 tons of contaminated soil and approximately 20,000 gallons of hazardous materials were removed from the site. By February 2013, EPA completed the disposal of soil and restored the site to nearly original conditions with clean soil.
EPA Cleans Up Hazardous Chemicals at “Mad” Chemist’s Site in Canton, OH
In January 2013, local law enforcement responded to a residential break-in at a duplex located in Canton, OH. While investigating the break-in, the local police noticed chemical containers inside the apartment.
The local fire department, Summit County Hazardous Materials Team (HAZMAT) team, Ohio EPA, FBI, and the Canton bomb squad were called in to respond. Ohio EPA and the Summit County HAZMAT team requested EPA’s help with identification and disposal of the chemicals. EPA worked with the local and state agencies and coordinated with the FBI to inventory and document the chemicals, perform air and radiation monitoring, and gather additional information from surrounding neighbors.
EPA carefully separated the flammable, corrosive, reactive, and unknown wastes. Small samples were then collected in test tubes and tested on site. The containers of acid and alkaline materials, flammable liquids, and flammable powdered metals were identified and safely packed into shipping containers and removed from the residential neighborhood for proper disposal at a licensed facility.
EPA’s response, assessment, monitoring, cleanup, and off-site waste disposal were completed in one day.
EPA removes illegally stored chemicals in Cedar Falls, IA
EPA completed the removal of thousands of gallons of toxic liquids and hundreds of tons of hazardous soil waste at the Cedar Valley Electroplating facility in
Cedar Falls, IA. Cedar Valley Electroplating was formerly involved in electroplating zinc onto carbon steel parts. The company operated an 8,500 square-foot facility in an industrial park adjacent to a day care center and a technical college satellite location.
EPA conducted compliance inspections under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and found illegal storage and disposal of electroplating waste chemicals normally considered hazardous waste because of their corrosive and toxicity characteristics. In October 2011, the Cedar Falls Fire Department reported to EPA that the facility had apparently ceased operations, abandoning a large quantity of hazardous waste, including caustic and chromate plating and rinse baths as well as numerous containers of process and waste chemicals.
In February 2012, EPA executed a search warrant at the facility and seized business records and samples from on-site containers. Several containers and
tanks had leaked chemicals onto the building’s floor and into the soil outside the building, threatening health and safety at the nearby day care center and technical college. The site was referred to EPA in May after the owners failed to properly respond to a RCRA order. EPA conducted a 13-week clean up that began in the summer and lasted into fall. EPA categorized and disposed of 48,000 gallons of toxic liquids and more than 250 tons of hazardous solid waste to eliminate threats to human health at and near the site.
EPA Orders Disposal of Highly Reactive Zirconium Drum Waste
On December 17, 2011, an explosion killed an employee of Heritage ATI and severely injured a second in East Liverpool, OH, as they were transferring waste from shipping containers to feed into an incinerator. The waste was turnings from the milling of zirconium metal and generated by the responsible party, ATI Wah Chang.
The reactive milling waste was packed in 55 gallon drums, which was then over-packed in 85-gallon drums saturated with water soluble oil. Zirconium metal is highly flammable and may ignite in air when dry. The drums were not known to contain any zirconium metal, and six of the 40 drums were transferred and treated without incident. Treating the seventh drum resulted in the explosion, and the remaining 33 drums were secured and not processed.
Over the next several months, ATI Wah Chang and Heritage WTI were unable to come to an agreement on how to address the remaining drums. In April 2012, EPA was contacted by Heritage WTI to coordinate disposal and proper handling of the 33 remaining drums. In May, EPA ordered ATI Wah Chang and Heritage WTI to properly manage and dispose of the remaining drums of highly reactive zirconium waste. EPA ensured that the responsible parties completed the necessary actions and worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (DOT-PHMSA).
EPA oversaw the drum stabilization and loading procedures of all remaining drums in July to ensure that they were safely secured for transport to the disposal facility. A contractor specializing in handling reactive materials stabilized the drums by remotely puncturing the drums and saturating the material with a sodium silicate solution. The drums were then prepared for shipment and transported to Chemical Waste Management in Arlington, OR for disposal.
EPA Cleans Up Abandoned Uranium Mine Site in Navajo Indian Country
In November 2012, EPA completed the cleanup of radium contaminated soil at the Section 32 Site, an abandoned uranium mine near Grants, NM, in Indian Country on the Navajo Nation. The Section 32 site, located near Navajo residents of the Casamero Lake Chapter, includes an unfenced deep mineshaft, uranium ore transfer station, and mining waste piles covering approximately 20 acres.
EPA conducted an assessment of the radioactive wastes, which pose significant radiation hazards if inhaled, using correlated gamma scanning and collected significant high-quality contamination data. EPA also reached out to the Navajo community using Navajo translators and translated fact sheets to discuss cleanup options. Working closely with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Casamero Lake Chapter officials and the Navajo Nation tribal government, EPA quickly implemented the cleanup plan.
The cleanup consisted of excavation, consolidation and stabilization of almost 30,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with uranium, radium 226 and radon, spread over more than 550,000 square feet. The vertical mine shaft was backfilled, and the excavated areas were restored with regraded slopes, sediment basins and repaired drainages. Seven water weirs were installed in the excavated area to reduce erosion due to storm water runoff and promote vegetative growth. During the cleanup, air monitoring was conducted to ensure that fugitive dust emissions were minimized. Nearby residents were temporarily relocated to eliminate their potential exposure.
EPA completed the cleanup on November 20, 2012, and will inspect the soil stockpile and storm water controls in the spring of 2013 to ensure they are operating as designed. The cleanup of the Section 32 Site represents a significant achievement in eliminating human exposure to dangerous radium contaminated dusts and is another step toward addressing the harmful legacy left by abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.