Orange no-go barriers warned onlookers that a disaster was present. Nearby a human form was lying on the ground in front of several downed drums marked “POISON” while crews struggled to contain the spilled liquid. There was no certainty about what chemicals they were actually handling — candidates ranged from anthrax to a chemical warfare-agent to various agents involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Actually, this was not a real-time disaster, but a drill. The hazardous materials component held this week was part of the Alaska Shield 2014 program that began last Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 and measure Kodiak’s state of preparedness for another potential disaster.
Alaska Shield happens every two years. Kodiak is one of five locations statewide with hazmat teams, along with Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Anchorage.
This year, some 60 people on the hazmat crews were part of the action, and conducted ammonia response training and a symposium as well.
“What we did was a simulated chemical lab. We wanted to put together a lab so that the responders could go in there and collect samples in their level A suits,” Alan Wien, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation disaster response coordinator, told the Mirror. “This was a full Level A suiting-up.”
Level A requires hazmat personnel to wear fully encapsulating bodysuits with self-contained breathing apparatuses to provide the highest level of protective gear available. “It takes that kind of a team to go in there and collect the sample. Because exposure to that could kill somebody if they’re not properly dressed for it and protected from that,” Wien said.
It turns out that ammonia is probably Kodiak’s most present threat to the island in terms of extremely hazardous substances, the highest level of chemical dangers to human.
“The biggest danger here is the ammonia — that’s the real reason that Kodiak has this hazmat team,” said Wien. “All the seafood processors use ammonia refrigeration systems. It is a real threat to any community because it is really nasty stuff. If it leaks, it has the potential to cause a lot of harm to a lot of people and that’s why Kodiak has a team here.”
In the case of a mega-temblor, however, other dangerous chemical mixes could occur throughout town. This includes various acids, and toxic clouds welling up in auto parts, paint stores, and other businesses. “You go to a paint store and they’ve got paint thinners and lacquers and turpentine and all kinds of things, and those are extremely hazardous chemicals… If that whole store got wiped out, and you had a cloud of fumes from all that stuff mixing together, you could have a very nasty gas cloud atmosphere. And you open the door to walk in and see its condition and ‘Bam!’ One whiff and you’re out cold,” Wien added.
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