ALBERTON – Over the weekend, experts from emergency response teams from across the region attended a training workshop designed around learning from the past. In particular, the experts looked at how responders handled one of the worst chemical spills in Montana's history.
Next April will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1996 derailment of a Montana Rail Link train carrying chlorine and other chemicals near Alberton, which caused the largest chemical spill from a train in United States history.
More than 1,000 residents from the Alberton and Frenchtown areas were evacuated, 350 people were injured by chlorine inhalation and one person died.
For 19 days, Interstate 90 was closed through the area so crews could work at the scene, the longest shutdown of an interstate in U.S. history.
The intent of the Saturday “staff ride” that was part of the Montana All Hazard Incident Management Team workshop was for participants to learn from the people who had been in decision-making positions at the time of the spill. At stations throughout Frenchtown and Alberton, they learned from the past about what went well, what could have been improved and how to prepare should a situation of similar magnitude occur under their watch.
At the station at Frenchtown Rural Fire District, Scott Waldron told attendees how important it had been to have an incident command system in place before a big disaster occurred. Waldron was the fire chief in Frenchtown for 18 years, including during the spill in 1996. He became the spill's incident commander.
In some ways, wildfires were responsible for how well the response to the derailment went. He said the fire department already had trained alongside other agencies in the area to prepare for large situations because of annual fires.
“Incident command systems are a framework of how to handle large scale incidents,” Waldron said. “You have a framework, a cooperation and you also need to bring in specialists for the particulars of that incident.”
They also had experience with chlorine because at the time, Stone Container was bleaching paper at its mill. The responders even borrowed chlorine monitors from the company to track the amount and direction of chlorine gas from the spill.
When it came time to deal with the chlorine from the train derailment, which had frozen inside of ruptured rail tankers, Waldron said there were several options, including blowing up the cars.
“We ended up deciding to put burners underneath the rail car to heat up the frozen chlorine, then suck off the gas it dispersed and turned it into bleach using another chemical compound,” he said.
Once most of the chlorine was cleaned up, they were able to reopen the road and let people back into their houses.
“Publicly, we gained some significant respect for how we handled it,” Waldron said.
Of all of the incidents he was involved in during his time with Frenchtown’s fire district, Waldron called the Alberton chlorine spill the most complex and complicated.
Despite dozens of state and federal agencies that gathered at the scene of the spill, all with interests and jobs to do, local officials were able to stay in control of organizing the response, said Mike McMeekin.
McMeekin, a former lieutenant with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office back in 1996, joined Ellen Leahy on Saturday at another station at Frenchtown High School for a discussion on public health and safety. Leahy is the director of the Missoula City-County Health Department.
“Missoula has some of the world-class level incident management experts,” McMeekin said.
Missoula’s incident team capabilities were categorized as Type 3, the middle classification for teams and situations.
“From the moment the train derailed it was a Type 1,” McMeekin said. “I haven’t found another incident that big that was able to be handled by a Type 3 team.”
On the subject of population protection, including evacuation, McMeekin offered some often overlooked advice to attendees, and echoed the message to develop response policies beforehand. Local officials had partnered together on a local emergency planning commission, which included Montana Rail Link, since the mid-1980s.
When sending deputies to conduct evacuations, he said it was important to take the tone that these are local agencies looking to help out people who are victims, not agents of the government there to give orders.
Despite all of the planning, there were still unforeseen issues that came up. The evacuation came during tax time, and many residents couldn't return to their homes to get their records. McMeekin stressed that is was important to build a response protocol that could be flexible.
“Is that in any book on incident command, in any class you’re going to take? Probably not,” McMeekin said.
Leahy said when the health department joined the response, they had no formal training on disaster response.
“It’s different than trauma, you have to gauge exposure and account for potential long term health issues,” she said.
Part of her work was developing criteria for when people would be let back into their homes. That included testing for chlorine gas, chlorinated compounds, a spill of potassium cresylate at the scene as well looking for a white dust that had been reported by locals.
John Fidler, a member of Missoula’s hazmat unit at the time, was one of the members of the first entry team responding to the scene.
“We had very little knowledge of what had happened. We knew we had a derailment, and we knew there were chemicals,” he said.
Fidler spoke to the workshop from a station at a fishing access spot just outside Alberton, within sight of the place where the derailment had occurred. He said when they came on the scene, they found the car had been punctured, and melting chlorine was releasing gas into the air. Some chlorine had also entered the river. He said the hazmat teams already had been working with the health department.
Information officer Jordan Koppen with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, one of the host agencies, said each of the officials at the workshops kept a journal of what they learned at each station, and on Sunday will attend class sessions about how to put the lessons into action in the event of a future disaster.
“It’s all about making the best decisions as quick as you can,” he said.