By Barbara Pualani
The end of the year is typically a time for reflection – when we think back on the events of the past year and shape our plan for the year to come. When I think back on EPA accomplishments of 2016, one of the first accomplishments that comes to mind is South Jersey Ice & Cold Storage – a successful emergency response in Vineland, New Jersey. It was my first experience working in response to an emergency. Moreover, it is an excellent example of how EPA works hard every day to protect human health and the environment in our local communities.
Emergencies tend to happen at the most inconvenient of times, and this emergency was no different. On July 4, I was celebrating the Independence Day holiday when I got a call from my supervisor asking if I could go to New Jersey to help with Spanish translation in response to an emergency. As a speechwriter, I generally write about emergencies and hardly go out into the field to address them, but I was happy to help out. As public servants, it’s our duty to serve in a myriad of ways.
I arrived in Vineland, New Jersey the next morning with a colleague. We first met with EPA on-scene coordinator, Dwayne Harrington, who gave us the rundown. South Jersey Ice & Storage, a storage and refrigeration facility, was in a state of disrepair. Excessive ice and frost had accumulated on the cooling coils of the refrigeration system, revealing the risk of a potential release of anhydrous ammonia – a toxic substance that can have serious health effects ranging from itchy eyes to burns and blisters and even death, depending on the level and length of exposure.The concern was that the anhydrous ammonia used in the facility’s refrigeration systems could be released at any moment, exposing residents to the toxic gas. EPA’s duty was to inform residents of the risk and figure out how to safely and securely remove the ammonia from the facility before a toxic release could take place.
Meeting with local officials at the firehouse, we sat down to establish an action plan. My role in this effort lasted one day, but my EPA colleagues would work continually on this emergency response for the next couple of months. In the end, EPA safely relocated 35 residents to nearby hotels, coordinated several daytime evacuations, and safely and securely removed over 9,700 pounds of anhydrous ammonia from the facility. Door-to-door visits and regular updates kept the community informed, and the threat was completely eliminated by the end of August.
Emergency situations are unpredictable, and desired outcomes can often be hard to achieve. Looking back on 2016, I say proudly that EPA’s response in Vineland was impeccable. In the end, I was most impressed by my EPA colleagues, who remained calm, poised, and methodical and kept public health at the top of their list of priorities. This situation is the perfect example of how local, state, and federal officials can effectively work together to safeguard the environment and public health. At EPA, people are at the core of the work that we do – and that’s something to be celebrate.
About the author: Barbara Pualani is a speechwriter for EPA Region 2. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and Columbia University.