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New law requires quick chemical release notification

In emergencies, citizens rely on law enforcement departments as their first line of defense.

However, in the event of a chemical spill or release of other hazardous substances, law enforcement in some cases may be the last to know.

A new law going into effect in January is an attempt to bridge that communication cap for law enforcement, according to DFL sponsors Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, and Sen. Katie Sieben of Cottage Grove. The law will require a state duty officer to notify the local fire department or law enforcement agency within 24 hours of a hazardous waste spill.

The law also allows the duty officer to direct the caller to request emergency assistance “if the situation requires an immediate response or the area is unknown to the center.”

According to current law, when a hazardous chemical release occurs, the spiller only has to notify the state’s duty officer and does not have to report to the local fire or police department. This oversight, Schoen said during a meeting last week with south Washington County law enforcement agencies, does not keep the public’s safety in mind.

“Hearing that in some cases the citizens are at risk was the most compelling reason for me to support this amendment,” Sieben said.

The amendment to current law stems from a January 2012 incident at the St. Paul Park refinery when hydrogen sulfide was released. St. Paul Park Police Chief Mike Monahan said because the refinery was not required to call law enforcement, the incident was not immediately known.

“The biggest concern here is how we got to the bottom of the list of notifications,” said St. Paul Park Fire Chief Kurk Lee. “We’re going to be considered the experts when we get on scene. We just want to figure out a way to get notified so we can determine if the situation is an emergency.”

Wade Setter, of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said his department, which oversees the duty officer program, has been a key regulatory component of the law. While he agreed that ensuring public safety is imperative, he said the duty officer’s ability to notify the correct law enforcement agencies in smaller communities could pose a challenge.

“We’re supportive of (the bill amendment),” he said, “but to be frank with you, throughout the state of Minnesota, with 800 plus fire departments and 400 plus police departments, it’s very difficult for (the duty officer) to know who the appropriate agency is in Ely at 2 a.m., for example.”

The duty officer’s position is meant to be a “one-stop shop for after-hours notifications,” Setter said, but with a small number of staff taking the thousands of recorded phone calls each year, it can be easily overwhelmed.

To curb the potential for added stress on the duty officer, Schoen said a strong educational piece must be included. Schoen is a Cottage Grove police officer.

“You can make the connection rather than making the decision,” Setter said. “That’s our role and our responsibility. There needs to be a way to engage (emergency managers) to make sure the appropriate notification is made.”

Will Watercamp, supervisor for the duty officer program, said additional training at public safety answering points and a crash course in chemicals could be beneficial to smaller communities.

“We applaud you for trying to close this gap and we do want to make sure the right people get the information they need so they can get to work on it,” Watercamp added. “At the end of the day, we’re going to give you a good product.”

Schoen said the law still will include fines and jail time for failing to report a spill and descriptions of hazardous and extremely hazardous situations.