EPA Makes a Big Bang in Baton Rouge

By Greg Fife

An On-Scene Coordinator or OSC is the official who directs or monitors the responses to hazardous substances releases and oil spills.  It is my primary duty as a predesignated OSC to respond and direct the responses to the emergency situations.  The decisions that I make often affect thousands of people, and I don’t always have a lot of time to make them. Last August is a perfect example. An 18-wheeler full of iso-butane, a highly flammable liquified gas, collided with another vehicle in the heart of Baton Rouge and closed the entire freeway.

The valves on the overturned truck weren’t working, and the axles on the trailer were severely damaged making it impossible to move.

To make matters worse, Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on the Gulf coast and predicted to make landfall near New Orleans within a few days. The closed I-10 is the city’s primary hurricane evacuation route. If the situation wasn’t addressed quickly, I-10 could have been closed for weeks.

The Louisiana State Police (LSP) determined the only way to clear the road was to vent the tank and burn the iso-butane. The owners of the truck declined to do it. That meant LSP would have to wake the Governor and have him sign an Emergency Declaration so they could get support from an explosives contractor. The state’s contracting procedures would take at least another day.

It was clear that the situation called for bold and decisive action. After I discussed the plan with the LSP and we all agreed, I knew that I was going to have to step in to make it happen to prevent unnecessary delays. In minutes, we got to work. Soon, a dramatic and controlled fireball lit up the midnight sky over Baton Rouge, and the butane was swiftly and safely consumed. I-10 was open for normal traffic for rush hour that morning, with barely a trace of what had occurred, and the evacuation route for New Orleans was restored. And nobody had to wake the Governor.

About the author:  Greg Fife is a 26-year veteran of EPA, currently serving as an On-Scene Coordinator in Emergency Response.

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