ATSDR Support to COVID-19, Natural Disasters, & Other Responses
During Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) was involved in 148 activities, mostly unrelated to the COVID-19 response. Of these events, 12 were acute emergency response. In addition to the response work, EM engaged in 51 preparedness activities, including three actions related to ATSDR’s role as the representative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the National Response Team (NRT) established under the National Contingency Plan for Oil and Hazardous Substances (NCP; 40 CFR 300). EM often partnered with other ATSDR offices, such as the Office of Community Health Hazard Assessment (OCHHA), Office of Innovation and Analytics (OIA), and Office of Capacity Development and Applied Prevention Science (OCDAPS), and experts from the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) to support these activities. Some highlights of these activities are described below.
In October 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall near Lake Charles, LA. ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) coordinated the CDC/ATSDR response and recovery operations for this event. Significant events during this response included support to Emergency Support Function (ESF-10) after a fire at a biolaboratory in Lake Charles and subsequent deployment to evaluate impacts to public and private drinking water sources in the affected area.
In August 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall near Grand Island, LA. EM coordinated the CDC/ATSDR response for this event.
In both incidents, EM monitored the response to various pollution incidents that had limited public health impacts during the response phase; recovery operations are ongoing and will be described in more detail in future reports.
In March 2021, the community raised concerns about air emissions from the recent startup of a previously closed oil refinery in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In April 2021, ATSDR participated in a conference call with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 about the history of previous issues that had prompted the closure of the refinery. NCEH/ATSDR staff on temporary duty with the U.S. Virgin Island Department of Health for hurricane recovery operations from the 2017 hurricane season notified ATSDR of a release of hydrogen sulfide attributed to the refinery. ATSDR helped address community concerns by
- Providing information to EPA (the lead agency of the response) and territorial authorities on notification procedures and health effects of hydrogen sulfide and odors in general.
- Providing support to an extensive air monitoring program established and operated by an EPA response team, at the request of the EPA regional administrator.
- Assuming responsibility for dealing with alerts sent by EPA’s team, when certain agreed upon thresholds for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide were exceeded in real time, while ATSDR’s Office of Community Health Hazard Assessment (OCHHA) prepared to address long-term issues; ATSDR shared its evaluation of the detections with territorial officials.
- Participating in a virtual community meeting arranged by a citizen’s group on the island.
The air monitoring system remained in place until the refinery ceased operations in September 2021. In mid-May, ATSDR received a petition from the citizen’s group for a health assessment to evaluate air quality issues from all sources on the island. OCHHA is evaluating the request through ATSDR’s petition process.
On April 25, 2021, a regional toxicologist from EPA Region 4 requested a consultation on the significance of exposure to papermill emissions affecting both South Carolina and North Carolina, where a recognized Indian Tribe resides. EPA began collecting environmental data ATSDR provided information from its Toxicological Profiles and discussed relevance of various comparison values during the initial call with the EPA toxicologist. Over the course of several days, ATSDR reviewed data provided by EPA and recommended that exposure to the air pollution be stopped to prevent adverse health effects in the community. ATSDR participated in multiple conference calls with EPA and both states. ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) worked closely with staff in ATSDR’s Office of Community Health Hazard Assessment (OCHHA), Office of Innovation and Analytics (OIA), and Office of Capacity Development and Applied Prevention Science (OCDAPS) Offices to support our partners.
In May 2021, the entire town of Sibley was included in an evacuation radius affected by the reported presence of ammonium nitrate. ATSDR monitored media reports and assessed site photos. Subsequent investigation revealed the derailed nitrate car was empty, but tank cars of hydrochloric acid were damaged and releasing the acid, creating an environmental hazard. A fire involving derailed railcars of asphalt was also occurring. ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) provided an acute event consultation, identifying potential health concerns of the incident to the region.
In May 2021, ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) was notified by ATSDR Region 3 that waste oil had spilled into Steamboat Creek near Norfolk, VA. The Coast Guard initiated a response with support from EPA Region 3 and the state. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) requested ATSDR’s support in reviewing environmental air monitoring and associated environmental data in response to odor complaints from the surrounding community. ATSDR and partners looked at potential exposures around the location of the spill ⎯ analyzing available data and using geospatial resources to estimate populations that could be exposed ⎯ and identified no environmental threats. ATSDR also provided information about the following to support the affected community: how community members can take action to remove or reduce the odors; how residents can document the odors to support a response; and health provider resources for understanding, assessing, and responding to patient concerns about the odors.
In June 2021, ATSDR received three National Response Center reports, an Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center (IMAAC) activation, and a U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary’s Operations Center (SOC) alert of a reaction in a rail car containing waste sulfuric acid. Excessive pressurization in several tank cars, caused by exothermic reaction, resulted in a release of sulfur dioxide into the community. Local authorities ordered approximately 400 residents to shelter in their homes. ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) notified ATSDR Regions 5 and 7, as the event was close to the regional boundary. Working with ATSDR Region 5, EM provided action levels for air monitoring to the EPA Region 5 on-scene coordinator and discussed possible response actions with Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Based on air monitoring results, the sheltering order was lifted on June 3, but reinstituted briefly for a smaller group of homes the next day. ATSDR Region 3 forwarded a report from EPA Region 3 about two rail cars at a facility in Delaware with a similar problem as the one occurring in Illinois. EM forwarded information from the Wood River response, including action levels and a summary of air monitoring data up to that date, and monitored media reports to identify any community concerns.
In June 2021, a chemical explosion resulted in a large fire at one of the largest lubricant manufacturing facilities in the United States, in Rockton, IL, near the Wisconsin border. Smoke from the fire lasted for several days and affected communities miles away in both states. An evacuation order was issued for residents and businesses within a 1-mile radius of the explosion; people located 1 to 2 miles out were advised to stay inside their homes and keep their windows and doors closed; and all people within 3 miles of the explosion were instructed to wear masks.
EPA Region 5 requested assistance from ATSDR in determining next steps for screening, sampling, evaluation, and education. ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) collaborated with the Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) and provided screening values for real-time air monitors of all recommended chemicals of concern; led the collaboration, alongside public health authorities, to evaluate potential contamination of air, surface water, sediment, and groundwater in the community; provided recommendations for air sampling; and developed factsheets to educate the community on how to protect themselves after returning home from a chemical fire. At the request of the health department, ATSDR also conducted an Assessment of Chemical Exposures (ACE) investigation. To read more about the response, see Responding to Chemical Emergencies: Rockton, IL, Case Study.
In June 2021, ATSDR was contacted by an EPA on-scene coordinator through ATSDR Region 5 indicating that EPA was en route to a warehouse fire involving approximately 185,000 pounds of lithium batteries ranging in size from cell phone batteries to those used in hybrid cars. Local authorities asked for air monitoring support and EPA needed information about analytes and action levels for air contaminants these batteries might release. Approximately 1,000 homes were evacuated. ATSDR accessed Safety Data Sheets for lithium batteries and reviewed information for the North American Emergency Response Guide (ERG). ATSDR indicated the primary concern would be hydrogen fluoride and reactivity of the lithium. With Illinois Department of Public Health and ATSDR Region 5, ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) provided action levels and re-occupancy levels. ATSDR reviewed air monitoring data in real time from an EPA dashboard representing data from instruments surrounding the area. The fire was largely extinguished, and residents were allowed to return home.
In August 2021, EPA Region 5 asked ATSDR Emergency Management (EM) for assistance regarding evacuation and reoccupation standards for residences in the neighborhoods surrounding a lift station in the sanitary sewer serving Flat Rock, MI. The contaminant was initially identified as benzene, then confirmed as petroleum (gasoline) that leaked from an underground storage tank at a nearby facility. The leak resulted in explosive levels of fumes in some homes and numerous odor complaints from homeowners with sump pumps. ATSDR worked with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to assist EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental, Great Lakes, and Energy in responding to the spill.
ATSDR was also able to do the following:
- Reviewed data from real-time air monitoring network and field laboratories operated by EPA, Michigan, and the responsible party.
- Reviewed and agreed upon a decision tree on protective actions based on readings developed by MDHHS.
- Evaluated the instruments proposed for use by state and federal partners.
- Reviewed community fact sheets.