In our opinion: Tooele County chemical hazards ripple outside the county

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Warning signs hang on fences surrounding hazardous wastes at Envirocare facility in Clive, Tooele County.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

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The fact that Tooele County is the site of several installations that deal with hazardous materials doesn't mean it's a problem only for Tooele County if something goes wrong with the storage or handling of such material.

So it is disturbing to learn the county has chosen, for budget reasons, to disband the hazardous materials division of its sheriff's office. Officials promise the responsibility to manage hazardous materials incidents will be shifted to other county agencies, but the details of such a shift have yet to be spelled out.

Utahns need a high level of confidence that, should any release of toxic material into the environment occur, sufficiently trained crews will be ready and able to respond. Should such confidence be lost for whatever reason, it's not only the residents of Tooele County who will find it hard to sleep at night.

The nature of its landscape is such that the county has found itself home to a number of facilities that store or traffic in potentially dangerous material, including a radioactive waste disposal facility, a waste incinerator and a magnesium processing plant. The county is also host to a large stretch of an interstate freeway where tons of hazardous materials pass every day.

And just downwind from Tooele County is the state's largest population center. A worst-case scenario incident involving release of hazardous materials could quickly become a statewide emergency. For decades, the first line of defense against such an incident has been the local sheriff's HAZMAT division. It would not be prudent for the county to do away with the unit without a comprehensive plan to ensure public safety is not left in jeopardy.

Likewise, it would not be prudent for state officials to stand by as Tooele tackles the issue in unilateral fashion. The Utah Department of Public Safety certainly has an important stake in the matter. In fact, with a sheriff's response unit gone, the mantle of "first responder" to a serious incident likely may fall to the Utah Highway Patrol, itself overburdened after years of budget cuts.

Public safety officials in the counties of the Wasatch Front also should raise an eye to what's going on in the Tooele County budget chambers.

County commissioners in Tooele are clearly facing a tough fiscal situation, and will have to make tough decisions to get through it. The county has certainly accrued income from fees and taxes paid over the years by commercial facilities that deal with hazardous materials, and the county has long acknowledged its duty to minimize public risk.

In fact, as part of its emergency preparedness plan, the county created a network of outdoor sirens to alert residents to a hazardous materials spill, or any other major emergency.

As officials reshuffle priorities for handling such events, it's important to recognize that potential danger from such an incident may travel well beyond the sound of those sirens.

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