When Fire Chief Curt Bittle gets bored while sitting at a blocked railroad crossing, he opens up his hazardous materials handbook and identifies the substances moving (or not moving) in front of him. "The product that runs through the city and the Wisconsin side is some scary stuff," he said.
Photo by Chris Rogers
Winona firefighters prepare for hazardous material spills during a training session on the Mississippi River (left and above left). Winona Fire Captain Brandon Luehmann (below, at left) plans the next step in setting up a containment system with firefighters Derick Ritter, Matt Lisowski, and Matt Yackel (below, from left to right).
Recently a barge carrying sodium hydroxide became beached on a shallow sandbar near Homer. The barge was freed without incident, but had the hull been punctured somehow, massive amounts of the highly toxic material could have spilled out and caused one serious fish kill, Bittle said.
The runaway train explosion that leveled blocks of a Quebec town this year was a worst case scenario, Bittle stated. Winona's last derailment—a minor mishap on Wall Street earlier this summer—only tore up some pavement. However, "the potential for a major accident is great," Bittle said. "We have the product — I hate to say — to put us on the national stage in terms of a major disaster."
When disaster strikes, "local government is typically on its own for the first two days," Bittle explained. A new government-industry partnership called Community Awareness Emergency Response (CAER), largely sponsored by Canadian Pacific and BNSF railways, gives local governments in strategic locations along the Mississippi River, from Red Wing to Marquette, Iowa, new resources for responding to and containing hazardous material spills on the great river. Winona is one of five communities along that stretch of the river with spill response equipment and training. On Thursday, the Winona Fire Department (WFD) hitched up the CAER trailer outside Central Fire station and practiced their river "haz mat" response.
Winona Fire Captain Brandon Luehmann stood by the river with his brother's hunting rangefinder and two giant yellow ribbons. "Now is where the distancing is more critical," he hollered to his team in an idling rescue boat. "We want them to overlap."
Luehmann borrowed the distance-measuring scope to gauge the placement of the yellow "booms" in a spill containment training exercise. If oil-bearing railcars lost their cargo in the river, Luehmann and his team would use the floating, rubbery booms to contain the spill.
The team drags one of the one-hundred-foot-long booms to create the second link in a diagonal line of booms stretching up river. The team is setting a trap. The floating booms form a giant funnel waiting for any spill swept downstream on the current. "When it comes down river it'll hit this containment system," explained firefighter Matt Lisowski.
"Back a little bit. Okay! D.R., uncleat it," Lisowski calls to his teammates as they place the next boom from the fire department's small rescue craft.
The department can use the booms to form a funnel to divert a spill to an area where it can be collected either with chemical absorbing "pillows" called "pigs" or a vacuum truck. The booms can also be used to seal off an area from a spill — a sensitive backwater, heron rookery, or a boat harbor, for example. In another situation, the department might direct a spill to a slough or harbor in order to trap the spill there. It all depends on what we want to do, Bittle explained.
In any case, the WFD needs to know ahead of time. "It's a big communication thing," fireman Derick "D.R." Ritter said of getting notice of an emergency. "We need to hear from Wabasha or Red Wing" that there was a spill. The WFD needs to know of an upriver spill flowing towards Winona ahead of time in order to prepare the containment system. "If the spill were here already, there wouldn't be any point," Ritter explained. Additionally, the booms only work to clean up lighter-than-water substances such as oil.
A relatively calm river made Thursday's exercise one of the department's smoothest to date, Luehmann said. Swift water blows the booms parallel to the current and makes getting them into the diagonal position needed to create a funnel system difficult, but on Thursday the biggest problem the team faced was debating whether or not their small boat could hold a Winona Post reporter without getting swamped.
Despite the extra cargo, Luehmann's team set up the spill containment system in short order. In case of a very large spill, additional response teams and equipment from Red Wing and other CAER communities up and down the river would come to Winona's aid, giving emergency responders up to 5,000 feet of boom.
When asked why Winona was chosen for the spill protection program, Bittle explained that Winona has environmental attractions that draw residents and tourists alike. "This is probably the prettiest piece of real estate on the whole river," he said. "We all owe it to do what we can to protect that."
In addition to funding from the railways, local industry groups have supported the program, including Severson Oil, Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), Wilson Oil of Redwing, and Xcel Energy, according to Bittle.