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A Midwest community college expected rising river waters to flood its campus. Focused on business continuity, college officials turned to their disaster response plan, cancelling classes, securing files, protecting computer equipment and other assets and moving furniture.
The flooding was not severe, damaging only parts of a few facilities. The college then lined up contractors to come in and return things to normal and to deal with damage and mold remediation.
That’s when they discovered that they had not planned for one important contingency – hazardous materials. Fuel oil tanks in one building’s basement had flooded, contaminating the area. Chemicals stored in a closet leaked out. Also breached and contaminated were the storage areas for vehicle maintenance and landscaping supplies.
What was supposed to be a simple remediation project became a complex and lengthy project. Due to the unknown effects of the hazardous materials, first responders and recovery workers were at risk and could not enter the buildings. A hazardous materials team had to be located and contracted to evaluate the buildings. Days became weeks.
College administrators had failed to consider that hazardous chemicals, such as lab materials, cleaning solvents and other hazardous chemicals and gases, are everywhere on campus. A strong storm or flooding could disturb storage areas, causing incompatible chemicals to contact each other, become highly unstable or emit toxic fumes upon contact with water. Any of these materials could require specialized handling in the event of a natural disaster.
Even without the threat of flooding or some other natural disaster, colleges should inventory all of these materials for health and safety reasons, know where they are and who is responsible for them on a day-to-day basis.
The inventory requires more than a staff questionnaire. Many of the most hazardous chemicals may be abandoned materials. Think about the toxic chemicals that were used for landscaping or pest control in the past. There is a good chance that they are still on campus and an equally good chance that they are forgotten in some storage shelf or shed.
The same applies to classroom materials. A new faculty member may arrive and choose not to use existing stocks, relegating dangerous materials to a back shelf.
All of the abandoned materials should be removed by licensed disposal specialists and the current materials should be noted and securely stored according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Knowing the location and condition of hazardous materials also gives the college an opportunity to move or otherwise secure the inventory before an event occurs. This may include installing secondary containers, permanently relocating stocks to more secure areas or even minimizing chemical stocks and fuel in storage before the flood or hurricane season.
The next step is to include hazardous materials in a college’s emergency response plan for every natural disaster and accident scenario. Hazmat responders should be identified and contracted ahead so that they are available immediately and can contribute to emergency response planning. Then, when a disaster is expected or occurs, the vendor will be familiar with the plan, ready to respond and able to coordinate with the other recovery service providers.
Under the plan, trained hazmat responders should be among the first to enter every affected building that has identified hazardous materials. They will evaluate spills and damaged storage/containers and develop remediation plans. Perhaps most importantly, they can isolate affected locations and quickly identify areas that are safe to enter. This enables restoration teams to begin working earlier in most areas, leading to quicker recovery.
Kelsey is vice president of education at Clean Harbors Environmental Services.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges