How to be prepared: Responders have plan in case of oilfield-related explosion
Federal health officials, the National Guard and a slew of local responders responded late last month to a roaring fire in boomtown Williston. The July 22 fire at oilfield chemical company Red River Supply caused flames up to 500 feet high.
The cause is yet to be determined, but the effects so far have required local, state and federal response in case of air hazards and other environmental effects. With North Dakota’s energy and agriculture industries, the same fiery incident could happen at many businesses in southwestern North Dakota.
But officials say there are plans in place.
Knowing what chemicals are in a building on fire can help diagnose a situation and, more importantly, ensure the safety of first responders, said Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew.
Companies that house hazardous materials file reports with their county emergency managers and fire departments detailing what is on site and the potential dangers.
For example, the “Tier Two” report for the Killdeer Farmers Union C-Store lists diesel fuel and gasoline. The reports also list where the chemicals are stored, the quantity of each and the contacts in case of emergency.
The first step in a hazardous situation would be to establish a perimeter, to keep the hazard without a boundary and to keep the public out of harm’s way, Dickinson Fire Chief Bob Sivak said.
He said an evacuation isn’t always the safest plan when airborne hazards might be in play — sometimes it’s better to “shelter in place.”
“Are you bringing them out into the hazard to get them away from something? … Is that answered by staying inside?” he said.
Officials said reverse 911 would be utilized to notify citizens of any such plans.
Southwestern District Health Unit personnel would also track where any runoff heads, said Joe Wanner, the unit’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
In Williston, responders set up a half-mile voluntary evacuation area around the site and used dams and berms to keep water used to fight the fire from entering the city’s storm drains.
Stark County Emergency Manager Bill Fahlsing said, as a coordinator, he would bring in the Southwestern District Health Unit’s environmental division in case of air hazards.
“And then possibly depending on the size — if it’s kinda growing outside the capacity of the locals — we’d start bringing in state agencies such as the state Department of Health,” he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency also responded to the Williston fire to place monitors that detect any particulates in the air. Particles smaller than 10 microns can cause respiratory issues, EPA on-scene coordinator Paul Peronard, who responded to the Williston fire, previously told Forum News Service.
In Williston and any other similar situations, once immediate dangers are handled, the focus switches to cleanup.
The responsible company foots the bill to clean up the mess, but if a company doesn’t have its own in-house staff for environmental cleanup, it could contract out the job.
Wanner said hazardous materials aren’t anything new with the oil boom — they’ve been around for years because of agriculture.
Officials and companies are prepared as best as they can be, Sivak said, but “sometimes despite the best-laid plans something will go wrong.”
Lymn is a reporter for The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1211. Tweet her at kathlymn.