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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A 1996 train derailment in Weyauwega spilled 9,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide; the town was evacuated for 17 days. © Wisconsin Central Division, CN Railroad
A 1996 train derailment in Weyauwega spilled 9,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide; the town was evacuated for 17 days.

© Wisconsin Central Division, CN Railroad

June 2003

First call for cleanup

For a quarter-century, a simple spill reporting law
has helped communities, businesses and governments stanch everything from trickles of pickle juice to floods of fuel oil.

Robin Schmidt and Andrew Savagian

Long-lasting benefits | The life of a DNR spill coordinator
Not your normal spills | How do I report a spill?
Reported spills in Wisconsin

The Hazardous Substance Spills Law created few ripples when it was signed 25 years ago this May, but it has since created waves of change for Wisconsin's cities, towns and villages.

The law is simple: Under State Statute 292, anyone possessing or controlling a hazardous substance is required to immediately notify the Department of Natural Resources if such items are spilled on the ground, in the water or released into the air. Secondly, land and water where spills occur must be restored to the extent practicable.

Whether a spill consists of everyday substances like fuel oil and gasoline, or toxic tongue twisters like perchloroethylene (used for dry-cleaning clothes), the straightforward reporting requirement has given communities and state agencies the vital information needed to deal promptly with hazardous situations. Communities want to prepare for potential accidents, handle hazardous spills safely and efficiently, and restore the environment.

The Department of Natural Resources was in the thick of spill prevention and cleanup battles even before there was a law on the books. "The 1974 train derailment in Walworth County – where tons of phenol contaminated the groundwater for years – really made the department assess its ability to be prepared for spills," said Perry Manor, a former DNR spills coordinator and one of the agency's first responders to that incident. Back in '74, the Department of Natural Resources had limited ability to access private property to contain spills, little authority to require cleanups of leaking tanks, little control if materials spilled in transit, and no requirements to be notified when spills occurred. "We needed more to help protect public health and the health of the state's natural resources," Manor said.

It took four years to develop a program and craft the legislation. After the law was enacted, DNR and other response agencies quickly went to work. Manor and others were named to a Hazardous Materials Task Force, a state group charged with determining the frequency, location and magnitude of spills, and to assessing how vulnerable Wisconsin was to such incidents.

According to David Woodbury, DNR emergency management officer, efforts in the Badger State to provide community protection mirrored what was going on nationally. The nation needed to coordinate local, state and federal efforts to ensure community safety when hazardous emergencies and natural disasters occurred.

How do I report a spill?
All spills should be reported immediately using the 24-hour toll free hot line, 1-800-943-0003. For more information, please visit The DNR Spills Program.

In the late 1970s, the country was reeling from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, and the revelations from Love Canal, the small neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York that became heavily contaminated from decades of chemical dumping. Then came the huge toxic air spill at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984.

George Meyer, former DNR Secretary and visiting professor of environmental studies at Lawrence University, remembers that time well. Meyer was working as a DNR attorney in the 1970s and said the agency was reacting, along with the rest of the country, to a new sense of community responsibility to protect the public and the environment from toxic releases.

"With many of the sites, like Love Canal, we knew the nation would have to go back and correct those problems," said Meyer. "But we also had to prevent those problems from ever occurring again. We had to learn from our mistakes, that the sooner you start dealing with problems like hazardous spills, then you can minimize and prevent the serious long-term pollution problems we're still dealing with at many sites today."

As a consequence of national and worldwide hazardous emergencies, a series of federal programs in the late 1970s and 80s addressed toxic dumping, chemical emergencies and hazardous waste management. They included the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that defined hazardous materials, the federal Superfund program for cleaning up toxic waste sites, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). That last law, EPCRA was particularly important to communities because it empowered them to do their own emergency planning. Certain industries were required to keep inventories of the extremely hazardous substances that they made, stored, released or transported. Those inventories were made available to the public through a data base called the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) and were made available to local fire departments, hospitals and community managers to plan emergency response.

State efforts complemented the federal programs. For example, the Department of Natural Resources tried to provide statewide spill response by having spill trailers located throughout the state. It became clear that scattered teams and equipment could not adequately respond to statewide emergencies. In 1991, the state legislature passed the Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team program that built a network of trained local fire departments that could respond to hazardous emergencies in each community. Regional or "Level A" teams would respond to the most serious spills and chemical releases that required the highest level of protective gear and training. County or "Level B" teams were trained to safely handle emergencies that were less life-threatening to responders.

Tim Franz, chief of the Oshkosh Fire Department, is well-versed in the system. Franz's department recently joined with the Appleton Fire Deaprtment to firm the Northeast Regional Hazmat Team, providing Level A coverage for the largest geographic area statewide.

When part of the City of Oshkosh was evacuated due to a chemical release from a rail car last year, the Oshkosh Hazmat Team led the response, Franz said. "When the releases are contained, we work with the DNR spill coordinators who ensure the proper cleanup actions are taken by the responsible parties," Franz said. "The fact that we have the experience and training to respond means we can better serve and protect the people living here. We know following the September 11th tragedy that local fire departments play critical roles in all types of disasters from terrorism to train derailments. Through the regional response team program in Wisconsin, local fire departments get training and equipment to respond to whatever releases we can anticipate."

Franz's experiences illustrate how the Spills Law continues to stand as work in progress for sound environmental legislation. Woodbury, who worked for the Division of Emergency Government on spills as the law developed sees many of the original recommendations still in place today. "When a spill is called in to our toll-free hot line, our duty officer is immediately informed and can ensure that the appropriate state and local resources are directed towards that spill," he said.

Along with the hot line, the Department of Natural Resources now has spill coordinators in each of five state regions. Through the one-call system, multiple state and local agencies – including local firefighters and hazardous materials teams – spring into action and work together to solve any spill emergency that comes along .

Supporters of the Spills Law eventually realized this mild-mannered piece of legislation had far-reaching effects.

"Certainly the original purpose was more limited, but this law blossomed to become one of the major cleanup tools for the state, to use for all spills," said Meyer. The former DNR secretary feels that, due to the limited bureaucratic strings attached to the law, it allowed flexibility in creating guidelines and policies, helping expand cleanup efforts as the years went by. The Spills Law equally serves as the basis for a lot of state cleanup programs now working to restore lands and waters that may have been polluted 10, 50 or even 100 years ago.

"[The law] became a tool to help us deal in areas where we had similar types of problems; in other words, once we had the data, we would know where there were X number of spills in a particular industry or area," Meyer recalls. "State agencies and industries could then monitor what was happening with the use of hazardous/toxic substances."

Mark Giesfeldt, bureau director for DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program, which oversees cleanups for a number of contaminated sites, agrees. "The Spills Law – with its emphasis on controlling any release of hazardous substances – has allowed the Department of Natural Resources to expand its efforts and work cooperatively with communities on long-term cleanups and pollution prevention."

Giesfeldt, who has been with the department since the 1980s, has seen the law's positive effects firsthand. "From a handful of staff that provided spill response and cleanup advice, to a statewide program working together with local officials and private parties cleaning up thousands of contaminated sites across the state, the Spills Law has made a tremendous difference," said Giesfeldt.

The life of a DNR spill coordinator

Roxanne Chronert considers her job one of the best the agency has to offer. "Each day when I come to work, I never know what I'm going to be dealing with," she says.

On a typical day, Roxanne will get calls about various spills, often small spills such as diesel tank leaks that occur when there is a traffic accident. "If it's a trucking firm that I know has responded well in the past, and they have a contractor on site and are working with the local responders, I don't need to oversee them," she says. Roxanne then can spend her time working on other spill matters. She routinely meets with local fire departments and other response agencies, including DNR wardens, to discuss various spill response issues. "I like getting to know them and having them get to know me," she explained. "Then when an emergency arises, we know exactly what to expect from each other and can focus on managing the emergency. This is what leads to successful responses that keep the citizens and communities well protected."

Reported spills in Wisconsin
Approximately 800 spills are reported annually in the state. The majority of these occur where the population is the greatest. DNR's Southeast Region is the smallest in size but the largest in population in the state, and nearly a third of all spills in Wisconsin occur there.

Most spills in Wisconsin are small. While quantity can be important, the substance spilled and where it is spilled are generally more critical factors. The most commonly spilled substances are petroleum products, with diesel fuel topping the list at 23%. Other substances such as fertilizer, paint and ammonia make up over 40% of the state's total spills.

Most accidental spills of hazardous substances happen at industrial facilities, including paper mills and chemical plants. Transportation accidents are another common source, as fuels are loaded and unloaded.

On October 17, 2002 Roxanne was working with representatives of the Department of Health and Family Services, as well as with Andy Carlin, the Waupaca County emergency management director, to assess conditions at a recently busted illegal methamphetamine lab. "The site was pretty messy," she recalled. While carrying a bucket of waste oil to a nearby building to secure it, she stepped over a piece of particle board laying on the ground. "I cautioned Andy not to trip on the board," she said. Then she heard the sound of the board buckling and saw him fall into a 14-foot dry well. "He was barely able to hold himself up at the edge of the well – I just grabbed him by his shirt and pants and lifted him out."

March 4, 1996 was also not a typical day for Roxanne. At 5:55 a.m. a Wisconsin Central train derailed 35 cars on the edge of Weyauwega, a small town of 1,700 in northeast Wisconsin. Fourteen cars contained pressurized liquid gas (propane and LPG). Several gas tank cars ruptured and ignited. Nine thousand gallons of sodium hydroxide were released from two other cars. Because the derailment was close to town and there were potential fire and explosion hazards, the entire town was evacuated – for what most thought would be a brief time.

"The fact that everyone, including the railroad employees, had been trained in the Unified Command System of communication made managing this emergency much more efficient," says Chronert. Roxanne and the wardens worked 12-hour shifts. They were present for the 8 a.m. Unified Command briefing and staying until the 8 p.m. command briefing. "Conditions in the gas tanker cars could have led to a major explosion, igniting the remaining tanker cars and potentially destroying portions of the town," recalls Chronert. Railroad officials hired national experts to find a way to relieve the pressure from the heated gas cars and reduce the likelihood of an explosion.

The railroad was also responsible for restoring the environment to pre-derailment conditions. Fortunately, the derailment did minimal environmental damage. Residents were kept from their homes for 17 days until electricity and gas lines could be restored. "If you ever need to evacuate your home, take your pets, prescriptions, purse, billfold and keys with you," advises Roxanne. "No one expected to be without their wallets for 17 days!"

Not your normal spills

When you think of spills, you probably have in mind a semi with a gaping hole in it, or a tanker on its side. But some spills cause significant environmental problems because of the nature of the spill, where the material was spilled, or the toxicity of the substance spilled.

Knee high by the Fourth of July: It's hard to think of corn – as in sweet corn, popcorn or feed corn – as a hazardous substance, but it all depends on the situation. Consider a stream filled with dried shell corn from a derailed train.

As organic materials decompose in water, they increase the biological oxygen demand (BOD) or, of the water – which reduces the amount of oxygen available to the organisms living in the water, including fish. If the BOD gets too high, the water will not contain sufficient oxygen for organisms to survive. Any organic material – corn, milk, manure – can be hazardous if too much is released into a stream, pond or lake. The company associated with this spill did not report it to the DNR, and was subject to enforcement action.

If there's corn, there must be butter: In May of 1991, a fire broke out in a refrigerated warehouse storing 50 million pounds of food products, including butter, lard and cheese. This warehouse was near a creek that flowed into Lake Monona, a large urban lake in Madison. Heat from the fire caused the food products to melt, which contributed to the intensity and duration of the fire. The warehouse buildings were destroyed, and water from suppressing fires activities mixed with the melted foods and flowed toward the creek and nearby storm sewers – all leading to the lake. The fire department realized quickly that this spill was a potential environmental disaster and reported the release to the DNR. The department acted to prevent the mixture from reaching the water, and the total environmental cleanup costs to the warehouse company were over $1 million. It took eight days to put out the fire.

What's that smell? Manure is not often thought of as a hazardous substance – it's a natural by-product of animal husbandry – but it needs to be properly managed or hazardous conditions may result. Manure applied too heavily on farm fields can run off into surface waters when it rains, or may be flushed into streams when barnyards are cleaned. The decomposing organic material removes the oxygen from the water, resulting in fish kills stretching for miles downstream.

In a pickle: A truck driver was in quite a pickle after his truck carrying pickle juice was in a major collision. Pickle juice and diesel fuel leaking from the truck caused soil contamination due to the hazardous characteristics of the fuel and the high pH of the pickle juice. The trucking company hired a clean-up company to excavate the contaminated soil and properly dispose of it. If left in place, the contaminants could have migrated to groundwater, affecting nearby private drinking water wells.

"F" in science class: Recently, a high school science teacher brought mercury to his science class for lessons. Despite warnings about the hazards of handling mercury, the silvery substance was simply too tempting for one student, who stole the small bottle containing approximately 4 ounces of the element.

A contractor decontaminates a bowling alley after high school students swiped mercury from a school lab, poured it in bowling balls and rolled a few frames. © Emery Coonen, Onyx Special Services
A contractor decontaminates a bowling alley after high school students swiped mercury from a school lab, poured it in bowling balls and rolled a few frames.

© Emery Coonen, Onyx Special Services

The student and friends began playing with the mercury, spreading it to various classrooms, stairwells, steps and sidewalks. Later in the morning, the student took a bus to a nearby bowling alley. The container of mercury was passed around, dripping on more students and the bus. At the bowling alley, students poured the mercury into the finger holes of bowling balls and rolled them down the lanes. During lunch, the student took the mercury to a friend's house, transferring it to Ziploc bags to be sold for $1 per bag. Before classes ended that day, the student was called out of her classroom, the mercury was confiscated and police, fire departments, and the DNR were notified.

The high school, several students, one home, a school bus, the bowling alley, and a sidewalk tested positive for mercury contamination. A contractor was called into assist with the mercury cleanup. To gain control of the scene and to control the spread of the mercury, students were put into separate rooms, depending on whether or not they were contaminated. Students who were contaminated were required to go to the school locker rooms, remove their clothes, shower, and dress in new clothes. Several students were taken to a local hospital for mercury testing. Total cost for the entire cleanup: more than $250,000.

Long-lasting benefits

The long-term effects of the Spills Law will continue to help communities and state agencies better prepare for hazardous spills. The state's voluntary cleanup process and incentives to encourage local governments and lenders to restore contaminated properties, are two more examples of the law's benefits, said Mark Giesfeldt. Even the success of the state's brownfields initiative, recognized as one of the top five programs in the country, can be traced back to the little known, Spills Law passed a quarter of a century ago.

"Clearly there have been problems, and there will continue to be problems," concluded George Meyer. "But the Spills Law has become part of the underlying fabric of environmental law in the state, and will be called upon again as a tool for decades to come."

Robin Schmidt is DNR's hazardous substance spills team leader. Andrew Savagian is a DNR outreach specialist on waste management issues. Both work in Madison.