Just after 3 a.m. on March 31, on a two-lane highway near the small northwestern Minnesota city of Plummer, a 65-year-old semi-truck driver slammed into the side of a Canadian Pacific tanker train. The truck caught fire and the driver died at the scene.
The impact of the collision, it turned out, had sheared the valve from one of the train cars, releasing 30,000 gallons of a petroleum-based chemical mixture, known as "aromatic concentrate," into a nearby ditch.
As the contents of the Walmart semi burned, a worker on the train called the local volunteer fire department for help. Meanwhile, the streets of Plummer, less than a mile away, began to reek of a distinct chemical odor.
It was a situation tailor-made to overwhelm the firefighting resources of Plummer, which has fewer than 300 residents. Yet, what happened next is being lauded as an example of effective collaboration among local police and firefighters and state environmental and emergency workers. It also sheds light on how some local law enforcement agencies spend Department of Homeland Security grant dollars on issues that don't directly relate to national security.
All together, nearly 100 people would help manage an incident beyond the staffing and budgets of smaller, local departments alone. Working in tandem and sharing assets like expensive air monitoring equipment is especially important now, with cities and counties cutting budgets even for public safety.
"The truck was on fire and we were trying to figure out what was going on."
"THE GOAL WAS PROTECTING US AND OUR TOWN"
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Plummer firefighters were the first at the scene, including Chief Philip Zimpel, an insurance agent who had been chief for only three months. Zimpel estimates they arrived five to 10 minutes after receiving the call. "Most people are sleeping at 3 a.m.," he said. "I would say 362 nights a year I'm sleeping at 3 a.m. So yes, I was sleeping.
"We did not see the leaking right away," he said. "We were a ways away (from the crash site). The truck was on fire and we were trying to figure out what was going on.
"We knew there was benzene around," said Zimpel. "That makes you concerned. You don't know what is going to happen. If it's going to blow up or react with our bodies. We tried to have the people closest to the train have respirators on. I hope nothing serious comes of it." Benzene is a known carcinogen.
Clearly, the volunteer firefighters needed help. The nearest ambulance service is 15 miles away. Zimpel asked a Red Lake County dispatcher to contact the state's duty officer, a 24/7 one-stop shop for state assistance. He asked specifically for a regional hazardous materials team he'd heard about but never worked with, based in Fargo-Moorhead, a little more than two hours away. "The goal was protecting us and our town," Zimpel said.
The duty officer contacted Kevin Reed, State Emergency Teams Coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, who was on vacation with his family and took the early morning call from the hallway of a hotel.
"There was one loss of life in that incident.They evacuated an entire town of 300 and nobody was injured. That's a big win."
Sending state resources to a local crime or accident scene can be a delicate matter. It's important to tread lightly and pay respect to jurisdictional control. "We describe what we can send if they want it," Reed said. "If they don't want it, we don't just send it. Many times, there is a little diplomacy needed, to say even though you may not feel overwhelmed, you may want to think about this. We are not there to force them into needing something. There are times when they don't want us to come."
This was not one of those times.
Reed coordinated with the Fargo-Moorhead hazardous materials team, one of 11 funded by the state. He touched base with other departments, like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, as well as the Canadian Pacific rail company. "We were in contact with the railroad to determine what the material was," said Reed. Another Public Safety staffer, meanwhile, jumped into a state car and was on the road to Plummer from the Twin Cities, a five-hour drive, by 4 a.m.
While the staffer drove, Zimpel continued to manage the situation. He requested a truckload of sand from the county highway department in order to build a dam around the spilled chemical. And he made what he called the "tough decision" to evacuate Plummer.
Firefighters went door to door waking people. "I said, 'Ring the tornado siren to get the townspeople up,'" said Zimpel. "Some of them thought there was going to be a tornado coming, but at least they were up." Residents with nowhere to go were sent to the nearby Seven Clans Casino, where the fire department had recently held an evacuation exercise. "The manager up there called extra people in, had cots, set up the breakfast buffet so everybody had food," he said. "I knew they would have the bedding. I didn't know if would be a couple of hours or all day."
HAZMAT TEAM ARRIVES
By 6 a.m., the hazardous materials team had picked up Dave Allen, a Moorhead fire captain and team member, and was on its way to Plummer with a truckload of equipment.
The state has maintained regional emergency management teams for decades, according to Reed, to address disasters related to weather, chemicals and bombs. But after 9/11, the teams became more specialized and fortified, thanks to the federal State Homeland Security Program, which has awarded more than $100 million in grants to Minnesota since 2003. The state funneled the dollars to local police and fire agencies, along with the regional teams, for equipment and training. Without federal funding, said Reed, "It wo uld have been impossible to develop the teams and sustain their capability to help local authorities." That includes the Fargo-Moorhead HazMat team, which serves a 13-county area. "I don't think the city of Moorhead would pay for the team to go to (these) different counties without grant funding available."
Before the Homeland Security money arrived, the team existed but was local. "When it became a regional asset, they got much more funding to start upping their cache of equipment and their ability to respond."
Nor could the Plummer fire department afford to have a hazardous materials team of its own, said Reed. "For that small department to purchase some of the equipment would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is no way local jurisdictions would be able to fund that equipment or specialty training."
In the early years of the Homeland Security grants, the program drew criticism for funding equipment--like military-style armored vehicles--that local departments might rarely if ever use. But recently the emphasis changed, said Reed, focusing on communication systems and maintaining and sharing equipment. That, he said, makes the grants more useful in situations that don't necessarily rise to the level of national security.
The grants are still coming, but the amounts are less than they were in the high times, $12.8 million in 2011. "The focus is on sustainment and keeping what they currently have," said Reed. "There were those big dollar number grants after 9/11. That was a lot of equipment. Over 10 years, they've given equipment to these teams. They're looking at us and saying we need to calibrate this and sustain this. The next two years are only for sustainment and calibration."
The Fargo-Moorhead HazMat team isn't called out very often, maybe once or twice per year, according to Chad Stangeland, the Moorhead firefighter who coordinates the team. But the area does see a lot of trains coming through, as many as 80 per day. "It's one of the main lines for BNSF," he said. "They come through downtown Fargo Moorhead here. We've seen increases because of the consumption in the oil fields in western North Dakota." Coincidentally, just five months before the Plummer accident, the team had held a training exercise around a theoretical chemical spill from a train.
Allen, acting as science officer for the HazMat team on the morning of the Plummer spill, didn't know what chemical they would be dealing with until about an hour and half into the drive to the site. "There was a lot of confusion on what was burning and what had spilled, where it spilled and if there was any flame impingement on any of this chemical," he said. Meanwhile, the team was being asked for advice.
"They were asking us if they could put the fire out," Allen said. His understanding was that the semi was still burning, but the flames hadn't spread to the train's contents. "We said yes, if that is what you have, put the fire out."
DEALING WITH THE CHEMICALS
Determining precisely what the spilled chemical was proved to be one of the more complicated aspects of the situation in Plummer. Workers at the scene had obtained some information from the train engineer's list and from hazardous materials placards. Reed called Canadian Pacific for a definitive answer, but didn't get it right away. "Any private business, if you are calling at 4 a.m., if you call Target at 4 in the morning, who are you going to get?"
"The challenge in railroads," Reed said, "is, who owns the car? Where is the car going? To drill down, you have to talk to their dispatch, which can be anywhere. You have to figure out the car information. That can delay things by maybe an hour. When you specifically want to know what it is, you have to backtrack." He said it did indeed take an hour to confirm that the liquid was aromatic concentrate, used to make fuel.
At just after 8 a.m., the hazardous materials team arrived. There were already about three dozen people there, recalled Allen, and the MPCA arrived not long after. "When we pulled up and the fire was out, we were pleased to see that," he said. "But there were a lot of people right up by the incident. That was shocking for us. We are trained that you keep back until the hazards are figured out."
In full protective gear and using specialized monitoring equipment, members of the team set out to check the area for airborne chemicals. The goal was to determine how close to the wreck emergency workers should get. "The air quality in town, if I recall, was just an odor," said Allen. "There was nothing." The closer they got to the chemical, the more the numbers went up, "but not to a dangerous level."
"We had a nice south wind," he said. "Everyone I saw was upwind. We had zeroes across the board unless you were standing right next to the product."
EVACUEES RETURN HOME, LESSONS LEARNED
By mid morning, the people of Plummer were cleared to return to their houses. Zimpel got the word to residents via a local radio station and Facebook and by calling the casino directly.
The spill had been contained, the fire department had dragged away the semi, and the operation was moving into cleanup mode. MPCA and Canadian Pacific officials were at the start of what would be a months-long process of removing the contaminated soil, burning the chemical out of it and preparing it for a landfill.
At around 1 p.m., the HazMat team packed up to leave. Zimpel's job was finished as well. "The EPA got there and we were pretty much out of the game then," he said. "They deal with this kind of thing all the time, we don't."
Looking back, Zimpel considers the collaborative effort a success. "We were happy to have state resources," he said. "I don't know what we would have done without the resources we had. To be in outstate Minnesota, it takes a while for people to get here. Once they got here, we worked well together as a team." He said the effort went "as well as it could go for a train accident in the middle of the night with hazardous chemicals."
Reed and Zimpel plan to take their collaborative show on the road and make a presentation about the Plummer crash response at a fire chiefs' conference in October. "This one we had all the pieces there," Reed said. "Usually you are missing a piece."
"There was one loss of life in that incident," he said. "They evacuated an entire town of 300 and nobody was injured. That's a big win."