Bangor prepared if train disaster were to happen in area, fire chief says

Two of the railroad cars that fell on their side during the derailment on the Bangor-Veazie town line recently.
Two of the railroad cars that fell on their side during the derailment on the Bangor-Veazie town line recently. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 19, 2013, at 9:33 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — While railroad crews assessed the damage in Hermon after a Pan Am Railways train jumped the tracks, Bangor’s fire chief said Bangor and the surrounding area would be ready to respond to any potential derailment disaster, but it would take teamwork.

“It would take a lot of resources and it would take a lot of cooperation,” Fire Chief Scott Lucas told the city’s Government Operations Committee Monday night, about an hour after a train left the tracks in Hermon, closing Coldbrook and Bog roads for several hours while crews worked to get the train cars back on the track. No cars tipped during the derailment and county dispatchers said no injuries were reported.

Councilor Charlie Longo asked Lucas to update the committee on the city’s emergency response plans in the wake of the disaster at Lac Megantic and a July 3 Pan Am train derailment in Veazie in which four tankers, three of which were carrying carbon dioxide, derailed and tipped. No leaks were reported from that incident. In an odd twist, the minor Hermon derailment happened less than an hour before the Bangor meeting.

Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president and spokeswoman for Pan-Am, did not return messages requesting comment Monday that were left before and after the Hermon derailment.

Several cars left the track in Hermon around 4:15 p.m. Monday, but all the cars remained upright and no injuries were reported, according to Penobscot County dispatchers. Less than an hour later, Fire Chief Lucas appeared before a group of Bangor councilors to fill them in on the city’s response in the event of a derailment or other incident that involves hazardous materials.

Orono and Old Town are home to a hazmat team tasked with responding to spills anywhere in the region alongside local and state agencies, whether it be a crude oil spill or a gas leak. Bangor firefighters have their own hazmat training that allows them to assist at an “operations level,” according to Lucas.

“It’s a joint regional resource” for any community in the area that would need it to handle a spill or disaster, according to Lucas.

As emergency management director for Bangor, Lucas can contact the Maine Emergency Management Agency directly to request aid or he can declare the city, or a portion of it, a disaster if needed. From there, the Federal Emergency Management Agency could render aid.

On July 6, a runaway train loaded with crude oil derailed in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec. The crash caused an explosion and inferno in the community’s downtown that killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings. The disaster devastated the town and has resulted in layoffs and severe blowback for Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which operates that rail line.

The disaster has prompted cities and towns along the tracks to question their maintenance and oversight, and to look at their own ability to respond in the event of something similar happening closer to home.

“If the bell rings and we get called, we’re going,” Lucas said.

In other business, the Government Operations Committee on Monday night supported the fire department’s request to reapply for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant to cover the salaries of four firefighters for two years. That would bring the fire department up to 88 firefighters on crew, barring any retirements or resignations between now and that.

The caveat of that grant is that the city has to maintain its staffing level through the life of that grant. If three people were to retire next year, the city would have to hire three firefighters to replace them to maintain the staffing at 88.

A potential challenge for the fire department arose out of the grant discussions.

Lucas said that nearly one-third of the department’s firefighters were eligible for retirement, including one with 40 years on the crew, some with more than 30 and “many” others with 20-25 years at the department.

Councilors expressed concerns that the fire department might see a “silver tsunami,” in which multiple firefighters retire at the same time, potentially creating staffing issues at the department.

Lucas said the department is planning to use recruitment and promotional videos, as well as collaborations with local colleges and universities, to boost the number of young firefighters in its ranks.

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