Environmental Health News

Training Addresses Hazardous Cleanup on Tribal Land

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Participants in a HAZWOPER training in haz-mat suits

Participants from Alaska in a 40-hour HAZWOPER suit-up and decon exercise that took place in -1°F.


Chuck Mitchell

The Northwest’s Tribal lands stretch from the shores of the Pacific to the arid lands east of the Cascades and to the Alaskan tundra. Accidental spills from land and sea vessels carrying cargo hazardous to people and to the environment are an ongoing threat.

THREAT is also an acronym for the Tribal Hazardous Response Emergency Activation Team, a new collaborative project among our Continuing Education Programs, the Tribal Solid Waste Advisory Network, and Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

The program aims to create trained teams who can quickly and safely respond to potentially dangerous spills and accidents on Tribal land in order to minimize damage to the health of people and the environment.

In remote areas of Alaska, such as on Kodiak Island where the Old Harbor Tribe live, aid may take days or weeks to arrive. The Tribe is piloting a local team-training program with its environmental director, village public safety officer, and two local youth interested in pursuing careers in environmental health.

Elsewhere, the cadre of Tribal workers may come from fire departments, police agencies, child welfare departments, housing authorities, and solid waste departments. Although a broad range of people may receive the training, not every emergency would require the same team to respond, said Michael Willis, who coordinates the program.

The training also positions Tribes as the decision-makers; they control whether and when outside agencies need to respond, said Willis. The US Environmental Protection Agency is looking at the THREAT project as a national model, he said.

Meth labs

Photo: Michael Willis

Tribal emergency responders handle hazardous waste spills, but they may not recognize a new threat: clandestine methamphetamine labs.

Some Tribal lands have become a haven for small-time meth cooks, who select a remote reservation, produce methamphetamine, and leave behind a hazardous waste site, said Kami Snowden, executive director of the nonprofit Tribal Solid Waste Advisory Network.

The network partnered with our department’s Continuing Education Programs and the Washington State Patrol to obtain a federal grant for an unprecedented type of training to integrate meth lab cleanup as part of a standard hazardous materials (HAZMAT) course, such as one that emergency responders take.

“This training is all about worker safety,” Snowden said. The goal is to raise awareness of the problem and train Tribal workers to recognize meth labs, so they can alert proper authorities for detective work and disposal.

Snowden explained: at the beginning of the course, the instructor asks the participants—who come from Tribal police, fire, public works, heathcare, and housing agencies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska—how many believe they’ve seen a meth lab during the normal course of their duties. Few hands are raised.

Then participants are shown mock lab scenes so they can identify the signs of meth production. The course emphasizes dangers such as volatility and flammability. By the end of the training, the same question from the instructor evokes a different response: almost every hand goes up.

Return to Autumn 2012 issue