Local firefighters say they have not received information on Alta Mesa’s gas facilities nor any training on how to handle emergencies.
Alta Mesa has failed to keep the district informed of their activities, according to fire Chief Steve Casteneda of the Payette Rural Fire District, who said he does not know how many wells are currently in the county.
Attorney John Peiserich and spokesman John Foster of Alta Mesa said last month that they prepare all first responders by offering “table top” discussions when the company builds a new well or facility. Casteneda said he has only received one invitation to those discussions, in 2013, and he did not find it helpful.
“To me, it did not pertain to us at all,” Casteneda said. “It was mostly about their managers and what they would do in an emergency.”
Alta Mesa has applied for five additional wells since that discussion. The Texas-based company also has built a gas dehydration facility and is preparing to build a gas transportation facility in New Plymouth.
Casteneda said Alta Mesa’s training should have provided information on its drilling activities, well locations and the company’s average accident rates.
If there were to be an emergency, Casteneda said he will keep his team far away from the source.
“I won’t put my people in harm’s way,” he said. “We would do traffic control, unless they provide us with training or equipment.”
Foster and Peiserich said that is exactly what the company wants first responders to do in the event of an emergency. Last month, they said first responders’ main task is keeping people away from the source while Alta Mesa’s chain of command manages it.
Still, in the event of a gas-filled railcar derailing or some other accident occurring outside of Alta Mesa’s facilities, Alta Mesa will merely “be there as a participant” as railroad officials and first responders manage the scene, they said.
New Plymouth Rural Fire District Chief Allen Blevins said his team has not received any training, either, although he is working with Alta Mesa’s safety coordinator to get training sometime this year.
He attributes the lack of training to the fact that, aside from well 1-17 in New Plymouth, Alta Mesa’s wells and facilities are still getting set up.
Meanwhile, Alta Mesa has provided two gas detectors to Blevins’ team in the last two months. It has not provided similar detectors to the Payette Rural Fire District, although most of Alta Mesa’s newest gas wells are located in that fire district.
“They’re not drilling in my district,” said Blevins. “They’re drilling in Payette Rural District right now.”
The gas detectors help firefighters know if the area is safe to enter. Without these detectors, first responders cannot know if there are toxins in the air.
Foster said the company provided detectors to New Plymouth because its gas facilities are located in its district. Its well sites should not need gas detectors in the event of an emergency.
“Wellheads don’t require the same kind of equipment,” said Foster. “If there is a problem at a well, we just shut it down.”
Casteneda said one of the things Alta Mesa addressed in the 2013 discussion was how to get an unconscious person to an ambulance. However, he said he will not let his team enter any premises without a detector to test the air’s gas levels.
“If you don’t have gas detectors, and some guy is laying on the ground, I’m not sending my guys in,” he said.
Payette County, New Plymouth and Fruitland firefighters are all trained to handle hazmat catastrophes up to an operations level, according to Caldwell Fire Battalion Chief Brad Carico, who used to run the Region Three Hazmat team.
If there is a gas leak or an explosion, Carico said the first place to get the call would be the Payette County dispatch center. Dispatch would then call the fire department responsible for covering that area.
“The state law and the federal law says there has to be a local on-scene incident commander in charge of the incident,” Carico said. “So he would evaluate what’s going on in the call.”
At that point, if the commander determines that first responders do not have the resources or training to control the incident, he would call the state communications center in Meridian and request a bridge call for the hazmat team.
The bridge call would involve the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, the Department of Environmental Quality, Public Health, the hazmat team and the local incident commander.
“That’s when it’s decided if the Region Three team has the resources to handle it,” Carico said. “The Region Three team is a Type 1 hazmat team, which means it could handle anything that is brought before it.”
He said that includes toxins involved with natural gas catastrophes, such as sulfur oxide, hydrogen sulfide and benzene.
Carico added that local first responders are trained up to an operations level, which is the second level of hazmat training. Operations responders are considered to be “defensive operation.” They contain or confine any product runoff and try to keep it from contaminating the environment.
Meanwhile, the hazmat technician is trained to do offensive operations, which could include capping or shutting off a valve in a leaking area.
There are four levels of hazmat training that include awareness, operations, technician and specialist.
Carico’s Caldwell team is trained up to a technician level, making it a Type 1 hazmat team. So if there were a natural gas emergency that Payette County firefighters could not handle, the Caldwell team would get called out.