By Erik Walsh
ATHENS–Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders has called together a group of experienced professionals throughout the county to talk about, organize and add structure to a collective response to local emergencies.
The group, called the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), is filled with members from all over the career track, including energy production and distribution, emergency management, fire fighting, hospitals and media.
While the committee doesn’t function in actual emergency situations, its role is to identify and catalogue potential hazards, identify available resources, mitigate hazards and writing emergency plans.
Henderson County Emergency Management Coordinator Joy Kimbrough says the committee’s main goals are educating its members about proper safety and emergency protocol and communicating that information to each other and the public.
“It’s all about education and communication,” she told The News. “While we have no direct control on what people do, such as making laws, we can provide the education needed to assist in preventing a disaster.”
Important lines of communication include the facility owners, first responders, city officials and the general public. It is necessary for industry to be a part of this planning process to ensure facility plans are compatible with local emergency plans.
“Not every man-made hazard can be fixed,” she said. “But they can be identified and people will be more aware of what they need to be safe in case of an emergency.”
Emergency planning and safety is fresh on the mind of many leaders in Texas after the deadly explosion in West April 17.
Man made hazardous materials are part of life today, and since they are not going away, as a community, options include handling them safely and responding correctly if something does go wrong.
Athens fire chief and LEPC chair person John McQueary responded to a barrage of media inquires last month when channel 8, WFAA reported that ammonium nitrate, the chemical fertilizer blamed for the deadly explosion in West, was distributed in a building near the square in Athens.
While many people were alarmed to discover the hazardous material was distributed so close to the square, its location is not new. It’s been sold there for more than 15 years.
The News spoke with McQueary about the ammonium nitrate stored at 105 Larkin.
“In a nutshell, the government has deemed it a safe material,” he said. “It takes outside sources to make it volatile. As long as protocol is followed, there should be low risk of an accident. Every explosion is because of an error., not the substance. As long as we work in conjunction with each other and follow regulations, its safe.”
Some regulations McQueary cited to keep ammonium nitrate stable is good ventilation, keeping it clear of other chemicals that could leak or get near it, making sure the building owner is following electricity codes and ensure no gas operated vehicles are stored in the facility.
“We are making sure the building is in compliance,” he said. “Would it be better if it was somewhere else? Yes. Would it be better if it was in a new building? Yes. However, the reality is, it is safe right now. That fertilizer plant was here before most of the city was and consumers need it in a location that is easily accessible.”
McQueary was reassuring about the city’s capability to put out a fire if it broke out at 105 Larkin.
“We have a 2-3 minute response time to that location,” he said. “We have three hydrants right there that could be quickly accessed. In 5-7 minutes the whole place would be flooded.”
McQueary said comparing the facility to the one in West is like comparing apples to oranges.
“West had a huge facility. Transport trucks with gasoline were in it, as well as multiple substances. There was a greater chance of accidents to happen. We have one product in one building. And it’s prime season for farmers. It moves out quickly because farmers want it. It’s gone the next day or two after it arrives.”
He said he is making its safety as one of his highest priorities.
“You had better believe, after West, we are triple checking everything to make sure its in compliance,” he said.