I’m an EPA worker who’s responded to more than 100 toxic spills and chemical fires, and I’ll never forget one that got my adrenaline going

EPA on-scene coordinator Brian Kelly wears a yellow protective suit.

Brian Kelly, an EPA on-scene coordinator.Brian Kelly

  • Brian Kelly is among the 220 emergency responders at the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • He responds when there is a major spill or chemical fire, including after train derailments.

  • Kelly worked on disasters like the BP oil spill and lead drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Brian Kelly, an on-scene coordinator at the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

I’m one of the 220 emergency responders that the EPA has across the country who’s on call when there’s a major oil spill or chemical fire, like after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

In my 21 years at the agency, I’ve worked on the recovery of the Space Shuttle Columbia, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the BP oil spill, and the lead drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan. There are also smaller events, like fires at oil refineries and paper mills and hazardous waste left behind by mines.

The job is complex, because one day you’re collecting air- or water-quality samples to protect public health and coordinating state and local emergency responders, the next you might be flying in a helicopter over an oil spill or briefing members of Congress. It really runs the gamut.

I have a background in environmental engineering and many years of training. You have to know how to handle hazardous waste like asbestos, arsenic, lead, deal with radiation, wear respirators and hazmat suits, and know first aid. I also deal with a lot of contracts because we spend federal dollars to respond to these emergencies and start the cleanup.

When I get a call and arrive on the scene, the first thing we have to find out is what chemicals are involved, who will be affected, and who’s going to do something about it. The company that’s responsible for a hazard or the EPA will do air and water sampling, then we advise if there needs to be an evacuation of the surrounding communities.

The EPA can’t evacuate anyone, but typically a fire chief is already at the scene. If the air and water monitoring shows significant risks, I can show that to them to help inform an evacuation order by local officials.

Two men in white protective suits sample a drum of chemicals.

EPA on-scene coordinators sample air, water, and buildings for toxic chemicals to determine public-health risks.Brian Kelly

The EPA issues an enforcement order to the companies responsible for a spill or fire to take over the cleanup. If they refuse, we take over and the law allows the EPA to sue to recover the costs from parties that don’t comply with the order up to triple the cost.

A thousand things that could go wrong

My most memorable experience was at a former steel site in Trenton, Michigan, that had been sold but wasn’t in use. A fire broke out in a pond that collects waste oil. I got the call, and my adrenaline started going.

You think of a thousand things that could go wrong. When I arrived, I saw a black plume of smoke coming up as a high school graduation ceremony was happening nearby. We immediately started to do air-quality monitoring to see if the ceremony should be shut down.

The fire department put out the flames quickly, but then we started looking around and found drums of chemicals that can spontaneously combust when they come into contact with water. We also found all these transformers and capacitors leaking chemicals called PCBs, which are highly carcinogenic, in abandoned buildings on the site.

The owner of the site refused to cooperate with us, so the EPA had to take over, and eventually we worked with the state of Michigan to put the site on the Superfund list, which are the most contaminated sites in the nation.

EPA on-scene coordinator Brian Kelly wears a neon protective vest and baseball cap

Brian KellyBrian Kelly

The personal toll

One of the most challenging parts of this job is discussing the risks of these events with the public. Some chemicals are easy to smell, but that doesn’t always mean people are being exposed to them at harmful levels.

That’s hard to convey to people with a disaster in their backyard. I also don’t live in these communities and I work for the government, so I think initially there’s some mistrust.

People are rightfully upset at what happened, and we’re the ones standing there talking about it. Oftentimes, it’s not the company responsible for explaining what happened, so we get the brunt of the frustration. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers, and there’s no quick fix to what happened. But in the end, I usually feel like we’ve done good and the community appreciates our work.

The job takes a toll on me personally. It’s hard seeing families lose everything from a fire or a hurricane. I also spend a lot of time away from my own family.

But it’d be really hard to do a desk job after this.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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