Guest Commentary

Jasmine Krotkov, Representative House District 25
Thursday, February 14, 2019

I’ve been enjoying the recent patch of typical sub-zero Montana winter weather. The colder the snow, the easier it is to shovel. It was lucky that Rocky Creek was frozen over when 39 train cars derailed last week, dumping over 4000 pounds of coal into it, or the whole Gallatin watershed could have been contaminated.

When the 49 runaway train cars came down Mullen pass and exploded the cold weather in Helena in 1989 was both a blessing and a curse. At minus 25, the water that firefighters used to attempt to extinguish the fire froze, and the chemical reactions of the spilled hazardous materials (HazMat) were slowed.

Every day thousands of HazMat train cars and tractor-trailer loads travel across Montana. According to a 2015 Railroad Safety Audit and 2018 Performance Audit, our ability to respond to hazmat spills can improve.

That’s why I’ve sponsored HLC 3009, establishing a hazardous materials response and preparedness task force. In the wide open spaces of Eastern Montana, it can take up to 12 hours for a hazmat team to get to a train derailment or truck accident. And while our rural fire departments do amazing work, they face an uphill battle when it comes to complex chemical spills.

When HazMat spills happen near to any of the six Regional Hazmat Response Teams its a best-case scenario. When they happen farther away from the cities, it can be a catastrophe.

The Clark Fork Valley Press reported that the Plains Volunteer Fire Department and Plains-Paradise Rural Fire District have completed hazmat training, but that all they are authorized to do is “set up a perimeter to then wait for a cleanup/technician team to take control of an incident if it happens.”

Local fire departments do a great job with what they have, and the state-wide Disaster and Emergency System is improving. They need additional support in order to make sure that both rural and city responders have what they need to keep our citizens, waterways and other natural resources from contamination.

Most response systems have been based on military or federal outlines, which are not always best suited to response in remote or rural areas. Montana-specific solutions to our unique set of hazmat response problems should be gathered from new and diverse sources in order to better support first responders all over the state.

My bill will bring together myriad stakeholders not just from the Disaster and Emergency Response specialists, but from rural fire departments, local governments, law enforcement, Tribal governments, the Public Service Commission, and the railway and trucking industries.

We’ve been working together, pooling our resources to fight fires, battle the cold, harvest the wheat and sheer the sheep for centuries. Let’s harness our tradition of teamwork to support our first responders. They put their lives on the line for us every day. LC 3009 will give them the tools they need to help keep us safe—and in this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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