Waldo County man dealing with disasters as a way of life

Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.
Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency. Buy Photo
Posted March 07, 2012, at 4:55 p.m.
Last modified March 08, 2012, at 5:19 a.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Tsunamis, hurricanes, blizzards and things that might go bump in the night.

These are the kinds of disasters and scenarios that keep Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, busy planning how to make his county safer.

“When we look at a disaster, we look at what’s the likelihood? What’s the severity?” he said Wednesday. “What’s the magnitude?”

And while it may just be possible for the county to suffer from a major natural disaster — the Ice Storm of 1998 is the worst in recent history, he said — the most troublesome scenario would be man-made.

“What really worries me, when it comes to potential disasters, are transportation accidents,” he said. “The worst case would be a transportation-related mass casualty incident.”

Rowley, sitting in his sunny Belfast office, seemed calm as he ticked off a list that would make any county resident’s heart go cold. A school bus colliding with a tractor-trailer. A ferry sinking offshore, making it challenging to ensure survivors don’t drown and can get to medical assistance in a timely fashion.

He presented some of the list to Belfast City Councilors at Tuesday night’s regular meeting. Although it is not one of his personal worst-case scenarios, Rowley did talk to the council about the proposed liquid propane gas terminal in Searsport.

Many county residents have talked about their fears of a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE, in the 14-story high propane storage tank that could be constructed at the Mack Point industrial zone if the project moves forward.

But Rowley dismissed those fears.

“The likelihood of that tank exploding is up there with an asteroid strike,” he said. “It can’t explode.”

According to the director, the propane would have to be in vapor form in order to explode, and also would require oxygen and a very hot external heat source.

“You could have a fire. It would burn a long time. But you can’t have an explosion once the tank is on fire,” he said.

He said that his agency has been trying to keep out of the controversial tank issue, although he has fielded phone calls from concerned residents. The county Emergency Management Agency would not regulate such a tank, he said, but the tank owner would come up with a facility response plan as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also would require a spill plan.

Rowley said his agency would not write an emergency plan for “something that doesn’t exist.”

Although petroleum-based products can be dangerous, he said, Waldo County’s most hazardous substances include lead, ammonia and chlorine, all of which can be found at various companies and factories.

“Those are the biggies for Waldo County,” he said.

Sulfuric acid and lead can be found in the large, backup batteries kept at places such as Bank of America, Fairpoint and athenahealth in Belfast.

Chlorine is used at Penobscot McCrum in Belfast and other chemicals are produced at General Alum Corp. chemical plant in Searsport.

“Those are extremely hazardous substances. They are toxic to human life,” Rowley said.

But most of the hazardous materials incidents that happen anywhere are related to transportation, not to their home facilities, he said.

In 2009, for instance, a truck full of caustic soda from General Alum Corp. was run off the road in Knox, causing a small chemical spill. Rowley showed photos of the truck’s aluminum tire rims melting after coming in contact with the caustic soda.

“When they get out on the road, where every Tom, Dick and Harry is, that’s not a controlled environment,” he said.

His agency works to minimize risk and mitigate problems. He and others develop preparedness plans, respond to crises, do recovery work and mitigation after the fact.

Some of the most dramatic scenarios are the least likely. Although memories of last March’s tsunami in Japan may still be vivid, in Maine the chances of weathering a major wave are very slim.

The closest place a tsunami wave might spring up is in the Puerto Rican trench in the Caribbean, he said.

“It would take 24 hours to get to us,” Rowley said.

If it did, at worst it would generate waves that were 5 feet tall.

It is possible for a meteorological tsunami to be generated in the harbor, after a thunderstorm, but that would be very small, he said.

But even if the tsunami risk is tiny, Rowley surely has a plan for that, just in case.

However, he said Hollywood’s disaster movies are not a good template for his work.

“They do make the movies about disasters, but they always forget to talk about emergency management when they make them,” he said. “Usually it’s some fire chief or police chief who takes all the credit.”

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