By Kenneth Kimmell
It was April 8, 2011, when an accident at the Suttles/Dana Transport site in Grafton caused a nitric acid vapor cloud to emerge from the rear of the property on Westborough Road. The initial concern was that the acid vapor was heading towards the nearby North Grafton Elementary School. The fire department ordered a protective distance around the facility of a half-mile, and the elementary school and a special needs housing unit were evacuated as a precaution.
At the scene, there were several pressing questions that needed answers: Was the acid vapor contaminating the air and threatening the health of the students and residents nearby? Did a larger area need to be evacuated due to this threat? Was the acid a threat to any other natural resources in the area?
A highly trained emergency response team from the Worcester office of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) responded to the scene, and MassDEP was able to provide the answers.
En route to the scene, MassDEP provided tactical options and recommendations to the fire department for plume control. On scene, the ER unit review of the incident determined that the amount of acid involved in the spill was smaller than first thought. MassDEP then conducted field monitoring using specialized air meters. We determined that the acid concentrations were low, allowing the "hot zone" to be reduced until it involved just the company building, allowing the areas around the school and the housing complex to be re-occupied.
By reaching these important environmental results quickly, MassDEP helped the emergency responders address the situation in a timely manner and allowed the busy area along Route 30 to return to normal as quickly as possible.
The Grafton acid cloud 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 months, in communities all across the central section 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 acid vapor cloud, oil tanker spills to the environment, major sewer line breaks, airplane crashes, and chemical fires.
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 ER unit to acid vapor incidents, protecting the public and making sure that the acid vapors don't threaten the public health.
It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to situations such as the significant sewer line break in Shrewsbury and Northborough back in March. The break allowed up to 1 million gallons of untreated sewage to flow overland and into Thayer Pond in Northborough. MassDEP worked with local officials to establish a monitoring plan for Hop Brook and the Assabet River to ensure that there were no public health concerns or environmental problems from this incident.
It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to a situation like the airplane crash at the Spencer Airport back in December, a crash that killed the pilot and spilled an unknown amount of fuel. MassDEP investigated the area and determined that there were no water bodies, streams or other sensitive receptors in the immediate vicinity of the crash scene. However, there were nearby residential properties, within a few hundred feet of the crash scene, which use private potable water wells, so those needed to be checked. MassDEP made sure that the crash scene was properly assessed and cleaned up.
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.