By Kenneth Kimmell

A potentially explosive situation loomed in the hours after a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Route 128 South in Woburn last month. About 7,500 gallons of gasoline spilled from the tanker, running into the highway drainage system and flowing out into the nearby Aberjona River. Unhealthy vapors hung in the air, and migrated into a hotel nearby and a gym building downstream along the river.

Two days earlier, in the South End of Boston, an explosion did occur - an underground steam pipe blew up, blasting holes in the sidewalk along Harrison Avenue and spewing dangerous asbestos fibers over everything within a one block area of the city.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) was one of the first agencies called to the scene of these emergency situations. Our staffers are experts in responding to disasters that put human health and the environment in harm's way. Plus, we bring with us the unique FAST (Field Assessment and Support Team) mobile laboratory.

The FAST lab is our solution to a critical gap in the Commonwealth's emergency response capabilities identified by the state's Incident Management Task Force - the need to be able to provide real-time assessment and monitoring of the potential environmental and public health impacts during disasters.

The Patrick-Murray Administration has championed FAST, and expanded its use. And the FAST lab's capabilities were critical during both of these recent incidents, providing near-real-time data, helping to assess the dangers from each situation quickly and accurately, and allowing the incidents to be cleaned up with no time to waste.

During the Woburn incident on July 16, strong gasoline odors were evident in the immediate accident area, and the vapors were migrating to the nearby Hampton Inn, which had to be evacuated. When MassDEP's FAST vehicle arrived, we worked with Fire Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set up an air monitoring system to track the vapors.

Overnight, high-tech gas meters and vapor monitors were set up along impacted areas, transmitting data via radio frequency back to the FAST lab for immediate evaluation. Air samples were also obtained from nearby buildings and residential areas and analyzed on sophisticated instrumentation in the FAST lab to determine the precise concentration of the toxic constituents of gasoline, like Benzene and Toluene. This data allowed emergency responders to focus on the most-impacted areas, cleaning up the pools of gasoline and reducing the harmful vapors - allowing the highway to reopen to traffic before the morning rush. It showed that surrounding neighborhood areas were safe, and the hotel could be reoccupied. Conversely, testing of air inside the gym revealed unhealthy levels of gasoline vapors, leading to its temporary shutdown.

During the Boston incident on July 14, the underground steam pipe wrapped with asbestos insulation burst and sent asbestos fibers through a manhole, a vent and the holes blown into the tarmac. MassDEP emergency responders and asbestos experts reported to the scene, followed shortly by the FAST lab. Using the advanced meteorological equipment onboard, the FAST vehicle accurately pinpointed the prevailing winds and produced a grid where the asbestos probably landed. Samples were gathered from those areas and tested in the mobile lab. In past years, these samples would have been bundled up and shipped to laboratories outside the city for analysis, causing a considerable delay in obtaining critical data.

But with the on-site analysis, emergency personnel knew quickly that significant levels of asbestos were present on Harrison Avenue and Herald Street, on the former Boston Herald building and in its basement garage, on railroad tracks running parallel to Herald Street, and on vehicles parked in the area, including production trailers being used to shoot the movie "The Heat."

With this knowledge, the cleanup company hired by the steam system operator was able to target the contaminated areas to promptly clean all of the surfaces, take more samples, and re-clean areas that needed it.

In total, more than 200 samples were analyzed on-site in MassDEP's mobile lab in a 48-hour period. During that time, Harrison Avenue and Herald Street were cleaned and reopened to traffic, and the nearby building and all vehicles and trailers were cleaned and cleared for use.

The use of the FAST mobile lab to support the on-site analysis of asbestos samples significantly accelerated the investigation, cleanup and closure of this emergency incident. The ability to obtain the data in near-real-time was critical to the complicated operation that required a "test-clean-retest" process. Anything less than on-site analysis would have led to a markedly longer and likely less effective cleanup effort.

As these cases illustrate, emergency response, on-site environmental analysis and timely remediation are key facets of MassDEP's service to the Commonwealth. Every week, day or night, our emergency responders, inspectors, scientists and engineers respond to oil spills, toxic gas releases, tanker accidents, boat-sinkings, drinking water system contaminations, and a host of other environmental and public health emergencies. And under Governor Patrick's leadership, the investments we make in new technology, such as the FAST mobile lab, make us more effective in that role, and pay off in spades when these emergencies happen.

Kenneth Kimmell is the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.