The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working to improve communication with county officials and local agencies, following a dog walker’s discovery last November of potassium cyanide on public lands near Thompson Springs. The man subsequently notified Grand County Fire Warden Marc Marcum.
County and BLM officials took precautions at the time to keep the public away from the potentially deadly material, and no one who came into contact with it was injured. But the labeled container remained on the site for about 17 days until a Nevada-based contractor hauled it off to a designated disposal area, according to Grand County Council vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs.
Assistant BLM Field Manager Lisa Bryant linked the delay to an awkward mishmash of unforeseen circumstances, including congressionally mandated budget cuts and changes in federal contracting procedures.
Cleanup efforts were further complicated by the fact that the agency’s standing contract with a licensed hazardous waste disposal company expired shortly before the incident occurred, according to Bryant.
Despite those limitations, the BLM began to implement its standard procedures for hazardous spill responses as soon as Marcum reported the find, according to Bryant.
After Marcum sealed off the area, the BLM hired a company that was certified to clean up the surrounding soils, and to seal the material inside an airtight, leak-proof container.
As the BLM worked to resolve the contracting issue, agency staffers and law enforcement personnel continued to monitor the site. They also posted warning signs in the surrounding area, and gave county officials regular updates on the situation, according to Bryant.
Despite those precautions, however, more than two weeks passed before the container was removed, and Tubbs was alarmed by that delay.
“I know how difficult it is to get things through the system,” she told The Times-Independent. “But I felt that this was too important to let things lapse.”
Tubbs has since met with BLM officials and others, and she’s satisfied that they’ve taken steps to prevent similar delays in the future.
Following a review of last November’s incident, the agency is working with local partners and agencies to develop a “phone tree,” as well as a list of contacts and backups for emergency notifications, Bryant said.
On March 15, the agency also entered into a five-year contract with Idaho Falls-based North Wind Inc., which is certified to remove and dispose of hazardous materials.
However, if North Wind or the BLM can’t respond to future HazMat incidents on local agency lands, Bryant said Grand County and the county’s contractors will now have the authority to act in their place.
With those contingency plans in place, Tubbs believes emergency responders will be better prepared in the event of future incidents.
“It takes care of the situation,” she said. “If we do not get a timely response, the county will take care of it and bill the BLM.”
If the response to this particular incident seems needlessly complicated, consider this: It can cost the agency as much as $10,000 to respond to a single incident, a BLM environmental engineer told USA Today in 2006.
Part of the problem is that there are only a handful of companies and employees nationwide that are certified to clean up, remove or dispose of hazardous materials. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are just 37,500 HazMat workers across the country.
Uncertainty often adds to the overall cleanup costs.
In some cases, crews arrive on the scene to remove suspicious-looking materials that turn out to be perfectly harmless. Other times, however, they may be dealing with hazardous chemicals and highly toxic drug lab supplies, according to Bryant.
“Unfortunately, America’s public lands are often the target of illegal dumping activities, which puts people and the environment at risk,” she said.
If someone comes across potentially hazardous materials, Bryant urges that person to immediately leave the area and report his or her finds to the proper authorities.
“Curiosity should be avoided, as many hazardous materials can be dangerous if touched or inhaled – even in tiny amounts,” she said. “We want everyone to enjoy public lands safely and responsibly, so it helps to remember that if you see something you should always say something.”
In this case, that’s exactly what the Thompson Springs dog walker did, according to Tubbs.
When the man first saw the labeled container, he kicked it over, and some of the contents fell out, Tubbs said.
At that point, he backed away from the scene and did what he should have done under the circumstances: He contacted Marcum.