Hazmat on the Highway? Maintenance Is Ready!
Every minute of the day, vehicles carrying hazardous materials are traveling District 7 freeways. Inevitably, there will be spills. A LOT of spills. Fortunately, our maintenance crews are ready.
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By the time you read this article today, chances are pretty good that there has already been a hazardous materials (hazmat) spill somewhere in District 7. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably will before the day is out. Hazmat spills aren’t an occasional occurrence here. They happen almost every day.
That sounds a little scary – and for good reason. Hazardous materials are dangerous, and there are more hazmat spills here in District 7 than in any other district. But we have highly trained maintenance staff who know how to handle hazmats safely, efficiently and effectively, protecting both Caltrans employees and the traveling public.
So what exactly is a hazmat? There are nine classifications of hazardous materials: explosives, gases, flammable liquids, flammable solids, oxidizers and organic peroxides, toxic material and infectious substances, radioactive materials, corrosive materials, and the catchall “miscellaneous dangerous substances.” A hazmat can be a solid, liquid, gas or combination of these states.
District Hazmat Manager Willie Perales has a more practical definition: “Simply put, it’s a material that can cause harm when it’s outside its normal containment,” he said. “If it can hurt you, it’s a hazmat.”
Fuel spills make up about 90 percent of hazmat spills in District 7. Such spills might result from overturned tankers, jackknifed big rigs, even passenger car collisions. Whether the spill is two gallons or two thousand, it’s still a hazmat. “There is no magic number when you’re dealing with hazmats. We have to clean it up,” said Perales.
There is also a staggering variety of non-fuel hazmats: batteries, pool chemicals, cleansers, medical waste, meth lab materials, propane, pesticides, paints, even some spirits. And then there’s the just plain bizarre hazmats. Remember the house that was being transported on the Hollywood Freeway (US 101) until it hit an overpass in September 2007? It, too, was a hazmat due to the asbestos and lead-based paint it contained.
The wide variety of hazmats and the high frequency of spills in District 7 is due in large part to the sheer volume of trucks in this region. “With all the port traffic in the district, almost every material known to mankind is on a truck on one of our freeways,” said Roger Castillo, maintenance manager, hazmat, storm water and culvert inspection. “The scary thing is that a lot of times we don’t know what they’re hauling when a spill occurs.”
Many trucks carry “mixed loads” that don’t have one of those diamond-shaped placards on the back that specifically identify the contents. That’s often true of vehicles like grocery trucks, UPS trucks, and trucks headed to big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart. The quantities of individual products are too small to require a hazmat placard. But should such a truck get into an accident, the contents could mix, creating a potentially lethal combination.
All maintenance staff receive Hazmat Training so they know what to do when (not if) they encounter a hazardous spill on the freeway. There are two levels of training. Everyone below the level of leadworker receives instruction in First Responder Awareness (FRA). FRA training focuses on safe approach, isolation of the hazmat, and notification of the appropriate people. Leadworkers and supervisors receive more extensive training, known as the First Responder Operational (FRO) level. When a spill occurs, FRO staff assess the situation and determine how the cleanup should proceed. To protect our workers and the public, all spills are assumed to be hazardous until proven otherwise.
When a spill occurs, one of the first things maintenance staff will do after isolating it – often in cooperation with other agencies – is notify the spiller. “Legally, it’s their responsibility to handle the cleanup,” said Perales. “We contact the responsible party and say, ‘You’ve spilled something on the freeway. You’re responsible for cleaning it up.’”
And they’re legally responsible for paying for it, too – not just the cleanup itself, but also for traffic control, damage to the highway and any other costs incurred by the department related to the spill.
About half the time, the spiller will handle the cleanup. If they don’t have the resources to do so, usually Caltrans will take care of it. For a typical spill of a known substance – let’s say, 50 gallons of gasoline – Maintenance has the expertise and resources to handle the cleanup. They’ll come out with absorbents, pads and recovery drums, clean up the spill and reopen lanes as quickly as possible.
For spills that neither the spiller nor Caltrans is equipped to handle – usually because it’s too big or it’s a particularly dicey substance – Maintenance has a list of vendors available to handle the cleanup. Staff will contact a vendor nearby with the required expertise.
“There are a lot of good hazmat contractors in this area,” said District Hazmat Manager Doug Johnson. “They respond very quickly and are very competitive in their pricing. If you’re in a rural area, it might take three hours just to get a contractor out to the scene.”
While most surface spills are cleaned up in a matter of hours, if a hazmat gets into the drainage system or groundwater, the cleanup process can take days, weeks, even years. “Ultimately, it’s up to us to make sure it’s done properly, no matter how long it takes,” said Maintenance Manager for Maintenance Support Richard Gordon.
Cleaning up hazmat spills is not without its rewards. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from protecting the public, the environment and freeway system, said Perales. But maintenance crews never lose sight of what the haz in hazmat stands for.
“Working on the freeway is dangerous enough,” said Castillo. “Hazmats throw a whole other monkey wrench into it. That’s why safety is so important. We all want to go home at night.”