TOOELE — A multi-million dollar budget shortfall led Tooele County commissioners to cut the hazardous materials division in the sheriff's office, shifting a decades-old responsibility to other agencies.
The health department will pick up local emergency response planning efforts and area fire departments are likely to step in with team members trained to respond to routine and severe incidents.
But the elimination of the division in the sheriff's office has some questioning whether the cuts will put the public and the responders at risk, particularly in light of a recent traffic study that showed a need for enhanced training for responders.
Tooele County's west desert is home to multiple industries and military installations that deal in hazardous chemicals or receive volatile shipments of materials that require careful handling.
"Just for the amount of stuff that is in Tooele County, it is a concern," said Mike Riley, director of the State Fire Marshall's Office Hazardous Materials Division. "There is a major highway that goes through Tooele County where that stuff has to travel by and be stored or used."
The county is home to EnergySolutions' radioactive waste disposal site at Clive, the commercial hazardous waste incineration facility operated by CleanHarbors Argonite and U.S. Magnesium Corp., a magnesium processing plant occupying several thousand acres on the southwest shores of the Great Salt Lake, to name a few.
Riley and others point out that those industries or installations are still active and pose hazardous materials threats, even if budget cuts are forcing changes in the makeup of who is in charge of local emergency response.
"We have not had a decrease in the amount of hazardous materials being transported on the highway," said Reed Scharman, advisory committee chairman to the State Emergency Response Commission. "It would seem the same amount of hazardous materials response capability would be needed."
In fact, a hazardous materials traffic flow study conducted in May over a 24-hour period at the Wendover Point of Entry recommended advanced training for both public and private responders based on its findings.
In that time period, one of every 10 trucks was hauling hazardous materials and one "observed concern," according to the report, was the lack of awareness in many drivers about what they were carrying, and any of the associated hazards.
"There was a noticeable increase in the lack of understanding of what hazardous materials were being hauled (39 percent listing the wrong shipping name) and what the hazard class was (35 percent got it wrong)" the report said.
During that single 24-hour period, 1,500 trucks passed through the area just about a mile inside the Utah border, with roughly 140 of them hauling hazardous materials. A breakdown as a result of the inspections shows trucks were hauling nearly 1.4 million pounds of flammable liquids, others had more than 53,000 pounds of poison and still others carried a little more than 82,000 pounds of radioactive material.
"It is among the top three busiest port of entry (stations) in Utah," said Rick Carlile, who works for the State Fire Marshall's Office and is the administrator over traffic flow studies probing hazardous materials. "I've investigated a lot of hazmat crashes over the years, so the potential is definitely there, coupled with the fact that the highway — I-80 — because of its nature, has a high number of accidents."
Carlile said that the restructuring of the chain of response when it comes to hazardous materials incidents in the county should be handled carefully, given those factors.
"I would be concerned that Tooele needs to have a good hazardous materials response group, definitely, and not depart from that."
Harry Shinton, a sergeant with the Tooele County Sheriff's Office, served as chairman of the Local Emergency Planning Committee for his county. He said he is voluntarily retiring this week in tandem with the commission's elimination of his division and concedes the budget move surprised him.
"We (the sheriff's office) don't have the response capability like we used to because we don't have the funding," he said. "The sheriff's office no longer has a response. There will still be a response, but it will no longer be directed or spearheaded by the sheriff's office."
Because it was once home to the nation's largest chemical weapons stockpile — eliminated in January — Tooele County received $75 million in federal funding over the years to craft a state-of-art emergency response program Riley said rivals many in the country.
With the stockpile gone, though, so is the money and the post 9-11 dollars thrown to counter terrorism on U.S. soil have also largely dried up.
Riley said that presents a challenging situation, particularly for an area like Tooele County, which still has very real threats it needs to be able to handle because of its industrial landscape.
The county's tradition of emergency response, Shinton said, will help it navigate that challenge, but only if agencies and others pull together.
"The threat is still there," he said. "But the money is not there to address the threat. The companies are going to have to stand up more and the fire departments are standing up as we speak....The sheriff's office will still be a resource, but it is not its primary function. If something goes wrong, like any other agency, you get help where you get help."