A chemical spill into the Provo River earlier this month served as a wake-up call for the many parties that have an interest in the water.
Representatives from about 15 federal, state and local agencies met last week to critique their handling of the wreck June 8 of a tractor-tanker rig into the river. The crash tore a hole in the side of the tanker, allowing about 528 gallons of ammonium nitrate, a dull red, gel-like substance, to flow into the river."We talked about the good, bad and the ugly," Utah County Fire Marshal Tom Wroe said. Overall, he said, emergency workers performed well.
"The thing we didn't do well was communication," Wroe said. First responders to the scene didn't know all the agencies that needed to be notified of the accident. They also lacked up-to-date telephone numbers for some agencies.
In addition, cellular telephones didn't transmit clear signals to the valley.
"Being in the canyon made communication out of the canyon difficult," said Provo Fire Capt. Dave Nielson, the Hazardous Materials Response Team commander.
Water officials were relieved that the substance didn't contaminate the water to the point it was unpotable. Had that happened, they would have had to warn every user of the system, compounding the communication problem.
Dave Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake Water Conservancy District, said the As a hazardous material incident it was relatively routine. As an environmental emergency it was more serious.
Provo fire captainEmergency Broadcast System likely would be used to inform people about undrinkable water.
Despite communication problems, Nielson said, emergency crews were able to quickly plug the leak in the tanker. They were also able shut down the Jordan aqueduct, which supplies water to hundreds of thousands of Salt Lake County and Orem residents.
The amount of ammonium nitrate spilled into the river proved to be less hazardous to crews on the scene than Nielson originally thought. The chemical is used as a blasting agent and as fertilizer.
"As a hazardous material incident it was relatively routine. As an environmental emergency it was more serious," he said. "It's hard for people to differentiate those two things, but they are different."
The chemical itself wasn't poisonous enough to keep the hazardous materials team away from it. The concern was for the drinking water.
"We're dang lucky it wasn't more serious," Wroe said.
The agencies involved in the incident are now using what they learned to fine-tune their emergency response plans.
"We're better prepared now," he said.