Some Experiences with Hazmat Cleanup, by Pat O.

I spent three years working through college as part of several emergency response teams dealing with hazardous materials (Hazmat) containment and cleanup.  There are simple lessons that can help prepare for various emergencies and materials that might be encountered.  This is not a do-it-yourself type of endeavor nor is it safe unless you are properly trained, equipped and monitored.  Safety is most important and your responsibility: Never put yourself or others in danger when a substance or environment is unknown or dangerous.  Take basic precautions and obtain all information about any potentially dangerous materials you may encounter or store as part of your preparations.  Some of my experiences have given me a lot to consider in my emergency preparations and hopefully will be of interest to others.  

Almost any material you might store or encounter around you will have a data sheet available providing details on each substance, their health risks, precautions, and basic instructions on how to deal with it.  These Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are also available online for free.  As part of your personal or family preparation, create a list of all potentially hazardous materials and gather their MSDS.  Study them.  Businesses must have MSDS on hand ready access and display placards of other regulated materials.  Become familiar with those materials you will likely encounter.  It is also worthwhile to collect MSDS for materials manufactured in your area that you might encounter in an emergency.  

Another important step is to do a site assessment of your home or site, to determine what potential hazardous materials are around.  Some suggestions may include old mining sites (especially in the western US), railroad tracks, highways or interstates, old manufacturing sites, steel mills, regional chemical plants, power lines, and especially pipelines.  All of these pose risk of chemical spills or contamination and should be considered.  Each county will have records as will the BLM or even the EPA to help you determine any possible risk.  Often I was called on to assist law enforcement when unknown chemicals were discovered along highways or in public places – often with drug paraphernalia.  Any main highway or roadway that connects large populations will have drug or other harmful chemicals discarded at rest areas, parking lots, or on-ramps.  

A simple list of personal protective equipment (PPE) can go a long way for basic hazmat needs.  These should include latex gloves, heavy PVC gloves, PVC boots (preferably with steel toes and shanks), Tyvek coveralls, and of course duct tape.  Eye, face, and skin protection such as safety glasses, goggles, or splash shields are good to have on-hand.  90% of our professional hazmat PPE consisted of these items.  The Tyvek suits are readily available, and I recommend getting the ones with booties on them.  Duct tape works well to reinforce knees and other locations from tearing easily.  The Tyvek was adequate for all dry materials we worked with, and a coverall jumpsuit can be found on eBay for about $7 each.  

If you have the need or availability, a good heavy PVC coverall and full-face respirator are also valuable for more difficult hazmat situations.  The PVC coverall works well for oil or petroleum materials.  For dirty cleanup we would wear latex gloves taped and sealed to a Tyvek suit, then put on the PVC coverall and heavy gloves and boots.  Again we would use duct tape to seal our gloves and boots to the PVC suit.  The hood of the PVC suit was also sealed with duct tape to our respirator or air mask during difficult or dirty work.  Our respirators of choice were full-faced masks by MSA which used dual filter canisters, and are easily available from mine safety sources.  The most common cartridges used for these masks were “Combination Cartridges” that were used for Organic vapors, Acid gases, and particulates.  Petroleum products, acids, and any wet materials required the PVC protection in our work.    

Full-face masks are common on eBay for under $100, and cartridges run about $5 each.  Whenever PPE is used to clean up materials, always dispose of the PPE with the hazardous material – never reuse contaminated PPE!   Mine tailings with heavy metal contamination is an invisible risk.  A friend was renting and trying to purchase a beautiful piece of property with a large shop on it and later discovered that a small manufacturer had used the site for casting lead bullets.  Most of the site was contaminated with lead in various forms to depths of up to 3 feet deep.  This posed significant risk to his plans for a garden and young children.  Many cleanup sites in the western US I’ve worked on consisted of replacing all exposed dirt and topsoil with several feet of ‘clean’ dirt.  Most of the contamination of these sites was capped by simply covering the bad dirt with a foot of clean soil.  When performing cleanup of heavy metal or mine tailings, we typically did not require protective breathing gear such as respirators if we could keep dust under control with water spray.  Our PPE was simply Tyvek suits to keep dirt contamination off our clothes.   Many counties will provide testing options for your soil, and if you find information that leads you to believe there may be a hazardous material, it would be best to document your findings and seek some lab testing.  With conclusive results you can then work to address or evacuate the area of concern well before your plans depend on the location.

I spent several months cleaning up radioactive materials at a Manhattan Project site – including contaminated dirt, cinder block walls, and underground pipes.  Our PPE was the Tyvek jump suits and respirators when needed.  Most of the time we did not require the respirators when the dust and dirt could be adequately suppressed by water spray.  We were constantly monitored by safety personnel with Geiger counters and air monitors, so this may be a tricky situation to call in a personal situation.  One day we were called outside to a grassy lawn that tested for low-level radiation.  The day was warm and sunny, so we kept a spray hose on the dirt as we loaded our wheelbarrow which kept the dust down, allowing us to work without respirators.  As we dug deeper, the soil became more and more radioactive.  After we had dug two feet, the Geiger counter was “lighting up” and we nervously put on our masks even though there was no dust.  Then, my shovel struck something and I reached into the hole, pulling out a very radioactive asbestos tile.  I was very glad to have my mask on!  A whole pile of these tiles had been buried out in the yard of this government campus, years earlier.  

Asbestos is another material we wore Tyvek suits with respirators to clean up in various buildings and ships.  Whenever asbestos is encountered, always vacate the area and allow professionals to deal with this material.  It is not safe nor is it legal to clean up on your own.  If you may encounter it, especially in older buildings, get more information on what to look for so you are aware of it.  It is best not to disturb it at all.   Acids are another hazmat you might encounter – especially if you have vehicle batteries around in your inventory.  While often not requiring breathing protection, eye, face, and skin protection are important.  If you have batteries, solvents, citric acid (for food preserving) I’d also recommend keeping baking soda and water near by.  Make sure you know what you need and have it close.  For most typical acids the soda and water will adequately neutralize any spills.  Another suggestion is to buy some simple PH test strips from a pool or hot tub supply store.  These strips are great for a quick check to see if acid is leaking or has been neutralized.  

Another common hazmat category would be explosives.  Gunpowder is usually stable and safe when stored properly.  I’ve responded to several sites where old Tovex or “Minerite” sticks were discovered.  Tovex is a modern replacement of dynamite and is much more stable and safe than dynamite.  Numerous federal, state, and county permits are required to transport this material, so engagement with appropriate authorities is necessary.  Ammonium nitrate (AN) is the main ingredient in most varieties of Tovex. It is still commonly available in agriculture or mining.  One response I participated in was for a semi-truck which was hauling a load of AN when it crashed into a mountain stream in a winding, mountainous canyon.  The trailer split open, spilling most of the AN load into the swift water.  The AN settled in pockets of thick, pink paste at the bottom of the river.  We used a vacuum truck to extricate the AN from the river bottom where we could.  It was easy to handle but sticky.  Since it is a fertilizer, our cleanup was not for safety but for the cosmetics of the fishing stream.  The recovered AN was interned at the local landfill.  When the trailer was removed from the river, we wiped the AN off with thick absorbent pads, which resembled thick paper towels of cotton.  These absorbent pads also worked well with oils and petroleum materials.  I’d recommend keeping a bundle of these pads available for an emergency as they are handy for many uses.  

Water reactants are a very dangerous and scary material to deal with in an emergency, and any risk or exposure to them should be identified well before it starts to rain.  Water reactants are chemicals that react to water itself, often very violently.  Though not common, they are serious and should never be dealt with except by professionals.  Indulge me in one story that may not have direct value to emergency prep which is vivid in my memory.   Late one night we got a call from the local fire department of a fire at a small chemical plant.  The firefighters, upon entering the building, discovered a large quantity of old, crystallized picric acid – very explosive with water or mechanical vibrations (i.e. shock).  The firefighters backed out, called us, and then performed fire suppression while we carefully carried the containers out to the police bomb trailer for later disposal.  As we were removing the acid, we noticed one of the burning walls had a small, hidden room with several weapons inside.  In less than 15 minutes, we had BATF agents escorting us and the firemen as we finished removing the acid and began removing the guns, cocaine, and other ‘evidence’ while the building burned around us.  That was a really exciting night for a young college student!  Apparently the ATF was already watching the place, and the cache of hidden guns was enough for them to pursue it further.   

If you have explosive materials such as gun powder, fuels, or fertilizers in your area, one suggestion would be to protect those materials with sandbags and concrete blocks.  Do not stack materials on the hazmat materials, but form blast walls in layers that will give protection in the event of a detonation.  Fuel vapors are very dangerous and will travel so learn of and take precautions.  It is beyond the scope of this discussion to give details, but take the time to ensure you are safe and legal.   Liquid mercury is another hazmat material we ran across often in my work.  Though not common it is still around in most communities and should be handled with minimal exposure.  Mercury vapor is the most serious threat.  Vaporized mercury can enter through your lungs and collect in your blood.  In our cleanup we used special vacuums with HEPA filters to keep vapor out of the air and always wore respirators with appropriate filters.  

We were called one day to a large warehouse where someone had shipped a quart jar full of liquid mercury.  The jar had broken, spilling material all over the shipping van, the parking lot, and pools were spread throughout the inside of the warehouse.  Our PPE was Tyvek suits, respirators, and heavy PVC boots and gloves.  We entered the warehouse (where work was continuing as normal) and found a young woman trying to help the company by using a common shop-vac, standing in the pools in her tennis shoes trying to vacuum up the mercury.  We had our masks on and quickly shut off the shop-vac, which was spraying mercury vapor into the air, and sent the young woman to the hospital.  I never heard about what happened with the young woman.  

Pipeline accidents seem to becoming more common in the news.  Please be well aware of any pipelines in your area of interest.  Neighborhoods are crisscrossed with gas lines in many residential areas.  One summer while removing neighborhood yards because of heavy metal contamination from an area steel mill, we found many houses where the gas lines were not buried sufficiently or where the gas company said they were buried.  We dug many of the gas lines up with our backhoe, and after a while provided our own first response to a cut gas line.  Most new gas lines are plastic “poly” line of 1 to 2” in diameter, and when cut by a backhoe blade, we would simply bend the broken end of the pipe over itself, crimping the end shut.  Then with duct tape or bailing wire we would tie the pipe end to itself, keeping the leak crimped closed on its own while we evacuated the home and waited for the gas company to respond.   In an emergency break, crimping the line will save valuable time and risk to the area.  If we couldn’t get a good crimp, or those times when the gas pipe was older metal, we got everyone evacuated a safe distance as soon as possible.  

Besides pipelines, railroad tracks are one of my personal concerns.  Many of my Hazmat calls were to respond to railroad accidents throughout the western states, and any railroad accident is a serious accident.  It is amazing the amount and variety of chemicals that are shipped daily around the US.  In the event of a railroad crash, toxic gases could be released and force evacuations.  Evacuation routes themselves are often affected by the crash.  The local environment and groundwater can also be at risk.  The good news regarding a railroad issue is that they typically are responded to quickly and effectively because any closure to the track line can cause serious financial losses.   Two coal trains collided in the canyon of a western state.  Fortunately no one was hurt.  Two of the engines derailed (along with many empty coal cars) and their diesel tanks ruptured, posing a threat to the water supply of 50,000 people.  The clay soil sealed the fuel tanks where they sat, giving the railroad time to repair and open the tracks.  Finally, two cranes hoisted the engines up, allowing us to capture and remove the fuel before it could get to the water supply.  My personal feeling is to stay 25 miles (and upwind) from track lines, and check on possible impacts a spill of any type might pose.  

Sometimes even a harmless spill of corn in a railroad incident can have dangerous effects.  In the remote mountains of Montana several cars of feed corn were derailed.  No other dangerous materials were on the train, so our response ended quickly.  About a week later, however, the feed corn had gone sour and attracted two black bears, which became quite attached to their lucky stash of sour mash and caused some problems with the cleanup crew and locals.  I was told that the Fish and Game Department had to intervene for the work to complete.   Petroleum spills are the hazmat materials most people will be exposed to.  Most of these items are extremely and violently explosive in gaseous form, so any potential risk of gas you must get away!  This goes without saying but is worth stressing again.  For most heavy weight oil spills, we would use Tyvek suits underneath an outer PVC suit, with gloves and boots.  Having several large bags of absorbent clay granules (Kitty Litter is great) is very helpful, as are the absorbent pads mentioned previously.  I’d also suggest some industrial strength citric cleaner that is readily available and works great to clean up.  Some times we’d be called to clean up drums of vegetable oil, and other times it would be 90-weight petroleum oils.  All of them were easy to clean up in warm weather, but thickened up in colder weather and required a lot of scraping.  Another suggestion if you have large quantities of heavier oil is to place several feet of gravel underneath.  In the event of a spill the gravel holds the oil well, easing the cleanup effort.   Hydrocarbons also pose an explosive risk when temperatures and vapor / oxygen levels are at sufficient levels.  Most of our cleanup equipment was specialized for explosive environments, including sealed light sources and brass hand-tools to eliminate spark sources.   

Many gas stations or places where vehicles are frequently located can become contaminated with even small amounts of hydrocarbons.  When these oils get into the soil, they can contaminate the ground and groundwater badly.  As the groundwater travels along streams, or as the water table rises or falls in the soil, these oils are spread upwards and downwards as they ride on the top of the water, contaminating many feet of soil when “pushed” up.  It is worth considering this as you evaluate your location in proximity to gasoline sources.   One job was running test wells at a heavily contaminated gas station.  Several buried gas tanks had leaked for years, contaminating the soil for many yards around the gas station itself.  As part of our work to monitor the cleanup, we had several test wells dug in the area and were pumping ground water out into large tanks where we could test the water for the amount of hydrocarbons present in each well.  All of the test water was contaminated and had to be treated before we could dispose of it.  

Our water treatment for this contaminated water consisted of three 55-gallon drums full of “activated” charcoal plumbed in-series together and gravity fed out of the holding tanks.  Activated charcoal is very porous or powdered to give it a high surface area for exposure.  The gasoline tainted water simply ran out of the tanks, into the top of the first barrel, out of the bottom of the first barrel into the top of the second barrel, and so forth.  Finally, when it emerged from the last barrel it ran out into the street.  We continually monitored the exiting water for any signs of contamination.  All of the water – even the last few gallons from the tank were “clean enough to drink” after running through the charcoal.  We processed more than 12,000 gallons through those three drums.  I was really impressed with the ability of the charcoal to cleanup the gasoline.  I don’t recall what amount of gas was originally in the water.  This experience has been great food for thought over the years.  

Industrial sites have a wide variety of solvents and hazardous chemicals.  Food processing sites also have a fair share of dangerous materials, including ammonia and acids.  Late one evening a coolant line busted at a frozen seafood warehouse leaking ammonia throughout the freezer area.  Much of the downtown city block around the warehouse was evacuated for more than two days while we cleaned up the spill.  Ammonia is a very powerful material and surprisingly difficult to deal with.  All seafood and ice in the warehouse was contaminated by the strong gas and had to be thrown out.  Less than 100 gallons was spilled, but contaminated more than 80,000 square feet of storage and hundreds of tons of food, not to mention all the other buildings around the vicinity.  While using steam cleaners in our efforts, our respirator cartridges would quickly fill and clog up with the steam if we weren’t careful so keep in mind the environment breathing PPE will be used in.  

One last story to share that hopefully will help someone else avoid a painful lesson.  One emergency response I was called into was to clean out a hotel room where a couple of drug fiends had taken an undercover police officer hostage in a bust-gone-bad.  Long story short- a lot of teargas was used to resolve the situation.  So much tear gas that when we entered the room, gas droplets pooled up at our feet in the carpet.  The room had to be gutted, and when the cleanup was over we were told to dispose of all of our PPE – including our respirators.  I was quite fond of my closest facial friend, and thought I would try cleaning it off instead.  The lesson I learned was that water does not wash off tear gas – it just spreads it… all over the rest of the mask.  Putting on a contaminated mask is not pleasant except to the others working with you to get a good laugh out of.  Lesson learned and I got rid of my old mask for a new, cleaner friend.   Decontamination (Decon) of equipment and yourself after a cleanup incident is as important as containment of the original spill.  Take time to plan out your exit strategy and ensure your PPE does not spread the contaminant outside of the containment area.  We used travel trailers with front and rear exit doors to allow us to Decon at one end of the trailer, shower inside, and exit the rear of the trailer in the clean zone of the site.  All work was done in pairs with multiple support people monitoring us at various distances.  While we did occasionally run out of supplied air and some minor injuries, I never encountered any other serious situations because of the redundancy and attentive care. 

Only one incident of contamination is worth noting that required first aid.  I was inside 10,000 gallon tanks cleaning them for old Chromic acid contamination.  Again, because of the steam, I was required to frequently exit the tank for my respirator cartridges to be replaced.  While having my cartridges replaced, the acid slurry was deep enough to enter the top of my boot through the duct tape seal as I knelt at the tank’s opening.  I immediately noticed the irritation and quickly exited the tanks and PPE, quickly washing my leg in clean water that was on-hand for just such a situation.  My injuries were minimal and required very little first aid, because of the planning and quick action.  

Finally, the most important suggestion I can make to someone regarding Hazmat cleanup is don’t do it!  Don’t mess with any of these materials, and if you believe you have discovered something potentially dangerous, get everyone away and notify authorities.  In many situations we have may have no choice but to do something this may give you something to think about for your own preparations.  As professionals we had extensive training, re-training, safety monitoring, regular blood work to monitor for exposure, and more training.  The best way to deal with hazmat materials is bug-out and get to a safer location.  That will keep you safe, and that will keep you legal.  Hopefully some of these ideas and experiences I’ve shared will help you do both.