By Kenneth Kimmell

A quiet Sunday night in March was suddenly disturbed by a massive explosion at the Bostik manufacturing plant in Middleton. The explosion blew apart one of the buildings, and officials and residents feared the subsequent fire might release chemical contaminants into the air and into the Ipswich River running along-side the plant.

Firefighters and a HazMat team quickly responded to put out the fire and assess the damage done to the facility. But several pressing questions still needed answers: Were air contaminants threatening the health of nearby residents? Did the neighborhood need to be evacuated? Was chemical run-off polluting the sensitive waters of the Ipswich, which is used downstream as a drinking water source for approximately 130,000 people?

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) jumped into action that night, and provided the answers.

MassDEP's FAST (Field Assessment and Support Team) mobile laboratory, manned by a highly trained crew, immediately obtained air samples within a downwind neighborhood area, and water samples from the river. Using sophisticated testing equipment, MassDEP scientists were able to quickly determine that there were no air quality problems for residents, and only trace levels of chemicals in the river.

By getting these important environmental results so quickly, MassDEP allowed the firefighters and HazMat teams to focus on other important issues within the building and gave comfort to local residents that they were not in danger.

The Middleton explosion 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 weeks, in communities all across the northeastern corner 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 chemical plant explosions, cyanide releases, mercury spills, a wastewater plant sewer disk spill, asbestos incidents, and building demolitions.

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 FAST vehicle to Bostik-type explosions, protecting the public and helping to clear the scene so that companies can quickly get back to business.

It will allow MassDEP to continue to respond to situations such as the recent Boston incident involving cyanide, where testing and evaluations conducted by our scientists were able to rule out any risks to the public. That enabled the city to "stand down" numerous emergency personnel, likely saving thousands of dollars in overtime costs.

It will allow MassDEP to continue to assist the city of Lawrence as it deals with asbestos and PCB contamination issues in the dilapidated former Merrimack paper mill, which was partially destroyed by fire. It will allow MassDEP to continue to target unlicensed and unscrupulous asbestos contractors, who put the health and safety of their workers, residents and the general public at-risk. Thanks to MassDEP, indictments were recently returned against contractors in Lynnfield and Methuen.

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.