Originally created 06/28/01

Emergency system questioned



The city was unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a relatively minor chemical spill in east Augusta two weeks ago, making a committee of Augusta commissioners concerned about how prepared Augusta is to handle future toxic mishaps.

The city's troubled response to a chemical spill at the PCS Nitrogen plant on Columbia Nitrogen Road could have been avoided if better notification and response systems were in place, emergency officials told the commission's public safety committee Wednesday.

"We were putting our community in jeopardy," said Lee Beard, chairman of the commission's public safety committee. "We know that what we have now is not adequate, and we need to (fix) that."

On June 13, the PCS plant accidentally released more than 1,200 pounds of nitrogen oxide mixed with nitrogen dioxide, creating a reddish-orange cloud that wafted up from the plant's manufacturing section and trailed over the Savannah River.

Richmond County Emergency Management Agency Director David Dlugolenski reported to commissioners that the current notification system, which relies heavily on television and radio alerts, was inadequate.

Getting the word out to local media outlets required 10 different phone calls, he said. Even then, police and fire officials still had to be dispatched to affected areas to alert homeowners to the spill over a loudspeaker system.

But public safety officers are not equipped with any protective gear for toxic spills, Mr. Dlugolenski said, placing them at risk of serious injury: Nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxide are capable of inflicting burns, breathing problems or death.

"Our most important business is protecting life and property," said Interim Fire Chief Carl Scott. "It was a situation where our men had to go out there and protect the people."

To avoid similar risks in the future, commissioners directed the EMA to develop a training program and drill schedule for emergency officials.

Mr. Dlugolenski is slated to reappear before the commission within 60 days to present a cost estimate and implementation plan for the suggested improvements.

"There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from this," he said. "We've got some very big problems here, and we owe it to the citizens, we owe it to this community to notify them in a timely manner."

He estimates that a telephone alert system - activated by computer to notify 400 households per minute to an emergency, such as a chemical spill, tornado or flood - would cost about $40,000 initially, and $20,000 for each following year, Mr. Dlugolenski said.

He expects to pay for half of the system through corporate and private sponsorships.

"I think your funding problem is the least of your problems," Commissioner Willie Mays told emergency officials. "We need to fast track this."

In other action, the commission's finance committee received a report on how much the special grand jury investigating city government is costing taxpayers.

An estimate of $77,267.97 was given to commissioners from accounting employees, but City Administrator George Kolb said the true cost is likely more than $100,000 when considering overtime costs for city employees called away from work to testify, the cost of support staff and materials.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.