At any given time, all sorts of nasty stuff - from pesticides to industrial chemicals to volatile petroleum products - roll by the truckload from one end of Columbia County to the other. The vehicles rumble within a few miles of the countys two cities, and through the middle of the heavily traveled, densely populated eastern tip of the county.
Yet its safe to bet most residents rarely give the big trucks, or the similarly laden trains that traverse the county, a second thought. Thats why the county is fortunate to have an Emergency Management Agency whose task it is to not only pay attention to such things, but to make plans for what to do if something goes wrong.
Columbia County will get a visible - and audible - reminder of this planning process Thursday morning. Thats when EMA, along with the Georgia EMA, the Savannah River Site and the U.S. Department of Energy - and a total of 27 agencies - plan to crash a truck laden with radioactive waste into a large van carrying an illegal drug lab.
Far-fetched? Maybe - but these exercises dont really test emergency responders abilities unless theyre run full-out, with all sorts of twists thrown in. In Thusdays exercise, which takes place on John Deere Parkway inside Horizon South Industrial Park, not only does the radioactive container get knocked off the truck, but the mobile methamphetamine lab spills dangerous chemicals and traps its driver.
All this planning is necessary because of material leaving Savannah River Site en route to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The stuff isnt exactly glowing hot with radioactivity, but it is dangerous if not properly shielded. It consists mostly of plutonium-contaminated clothing, tools and debris from the nations nuclear weapons program, and its all packed in huge containers-within-containers mounted on flatbed trucks.
The shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant travel regularly through Columbia County and Georgia, yet amazingly, no other Georgia community has put together an exercise to see how theyll react if one of the trucks crashes, says Pam Tucker, Columbia Countys Emergency Services director.
This is the first one anybodys attempted in Georgia, Tucker says. Our whole community will be better off for this in a lot of ways. I do not expect anything to ever happen to one of those WIPP trucks. But if it does, we wont be standing around saying, "Oh, no, a big WIPP truck. What do we do?
What are the others waiting on? An accident with one of these vehicles isnt so far-fetched, especially considering the WIPP plant has already received more than 1,000 shipments from around the country since it opened. In just the past year, Tucker points out, three of those trucks have been involved in crashes.
Motorists around Horizon South on Thursday will see some signs posted by the countys Roads and Bridges crews, explaining the reason for the temporary John Deere Parkway closure. And citizens in the area surrounding the exercise will get automated telephone calls explaining all the commotion, and telling them what they should be prepared to do if there is a real emergency.
The exercise isnt likely to cause any problems for those traveling through the area Thursday. But even if it does cause a few temporary detours, the exercise should provide valuable information to help all these local and outside agencies work together when there is a real emergency one day - and thats certainly worth a little inconvenience.
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