The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

April 21, 2013

ARE WE READY? Man-made problems can create big concerns

BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
Commercial-News

DANVILLE — While problems caused by Mother Nature are the customary incidents local emergency officials deal with, they can notlook past the man-made variety as well.

With Interstate 74 effectively cutting a swath through the county, problems such as hazardous chemical spills are always a possibility.

Ted Fisher, director of the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency, said he estimates that traffic has probably doubled on the interstate thoroughfare in the last 10 years. And with the potential for a chemical spill, Fisher said how to protect the public raises several tough questions.

“We have to alert the public and try to maintain low-grade panic,” he said. “You have to reroute traffic so they don’t go through spill.”

If the spill is a large one, officials have to make a huge decision quickly — try to shelter nearby residents in their own homes or open up shelters and evacuate residents out.

“Shelter in place is the least costly of all the options,” he said. “People can stay in their own homes and hunker down. But is has the highest risk level. If you’ve got shelter in place with people in their own hoes and the wind changes or someone misestimates something and you kill a neighborhood, that’s a big problem.”

Immediately opting to try and evacuate residents, however, comes with its own problems.

“As soon as you give an evacuation order, you’ve got hundreds of people searching for someplace to go,” Fisher said. “You’ve automatically said you’re going to take care of those people and their costs. And you’re talking millions of dollars there.”

The longer an evacuation lasts, the more the costs can pile up for the county — costs that eventually can trickle back down to taxpayers.

“Eventually the company that spills in Vermilion County is going to pay for that, but you have to find a way to pay for it until they do,” Fisher said, adding the civil suits and possible criminal charges could potentially prolong that wait for years.

During a spill obvious other problems arise, including disposal of debris and clean up. Fisher said Vermilion County is lucky that it has a landfill nearby right now.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of things going on at once,” he said.