Local officials to develop county-wide hazmat emergency response plan

Local officials to develop county-wide hazmat emergency response plan

PRESIDIO — Representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Presidio County, and the Rio Grande Council of Governments met last week to begin devising a county-wide response plan to a hypothetical “worst case scenario” involving hazardous materials in light of a plan to move diesel through Presidio. Presidio County’s latest emergency management plan is five years old, and does not include hazmat protocols. 

The meetings have been fast-tracked as a result of controversy surrounding a planned diesel transport operation that would open the Presidio International Bridge to hazmat transport for the first time. The operation would see 750,000-1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel shipped by rail to Presidio every week, then transferred onto tanker trucks and driven across the bridge to Chihuahua City. 

In November, City Administrator Brad Newton recalled telling Texas Pacifico that Presidio has “never done hazmat and never will.” But as confusion has swirled about the entities involved in the plan and who is responsible for footing the bill in the event of an emergency, local officials and private citizens have grappled with the reality that hazmat may be coming through Presidio whether they like it or not — a growing pain associated with trying to increase traffic and trade over the international bridge. Officials will have to square those incentives with concerns around safety, which are made more pressing by the volume of diesel being transported and the isolated nature of the city.

“This is a special isolated deal for Presidio,” said Gary Mitschke, Presidio County’s emergency coordinator. “In Presidio, it’s not so much the hazmat material — the diesel — it’s just the volume that we’re talking about.”

Hazmat is already shipped through other communities in the county, though the Presidio plan is unique in that the trains will stop and transfer the material within city limits. Mitschke pointed out that “much worse” hazmat crosses through Marfa via the Union Pacific rail line, but because it doesn’t stop there, the risks involved are different. “We’re going to update [the county emergency management plan], and it’s going to benefit everybody.” 

At an earlier hazmat meeting held January 5, Presidio Fire Chief Saul Pardo Jr. and EMS Director Malynda Richardson expressed concern that very few local first responders are hazmat certified. Mitschke reiterated those concerns in Marfa, where he also serves as the fire chief. In both Marfa and Presidio, most first responders are volunteers. “Going to that next level is another side of the question,” he said. “To become a certified firefighter takes two or three years, and that’s a full-time job.” 

While the exact details of the emergency management plan can’t be shared with the public due to security concerns, points of contact for each agency involved will be updated, and the radio system that links first responders in Marfa and Presidio will be evaluated. The main challenge will be devising a public notification system. Presidio County’s “reverse 911 system,” piloted in spring 2020, still requires users to individually opt in. The city of Presidio doesn’t have railroad crossing arms to prevent drivers from crossing the tracks, and while the city’s sirens may still be functional, no one has the codes to operate them. 

The officials present were given homework: draft a plan of how they would respond to a “worst case scenario” — specifically, “two trucks crashing into each other in front of [Presidio Elementary] school.” Officials will come up with a plan for how the various agencies would notify each other and keep parents and neighbors in the loop, and how they would teach children to respond to a hazmat emergency. 

Though the simulated scenario is “worst case,” it’s not an impossibility — the diesel transport operation would potentially see 150 trucks full of diesel fuel make their way down the street past the elementary school each week. Finding a way to prepare Presidio families for the risks involved in large-scale hazmat transport is a major priority for county officials. 

Word of the potential transport operation has spread beyond the Presidio county line, all the way to Austin and El Paso. Johnathan Cereceres and Cassandra Urrutia, district representatives for State Senator César Blanco, met via Zoom on Tuesday with a small group of City of Presidio officials. “If we need to, we can reach out to various stakeholders and bring the right people to be able to help out and make sure that this process is efficient,” Cereceres said. 

Cereceres and Urrutia reported that they had spoken with Texas Department of Transportation officials who expressed concern about the hazmat protocols being developed in Presidio. The Presidio International Bridge is unique in that it is owned by the state of Texas and operated by TxDOT, while the 27 other border crossings in Texas are primarily owned by the city or county they are located in. “We’re TxDOT’s only child when it comes to international bridges, and that’s why we call on them to help us solve these sorts of problems,” Newton explained. 

“I think that there’s still a lot of things that TxDOT is starting to investigate themselves, to clarify things for the city,” said Vicky Carrasco, an engineer with Presidio roots who offered to help the city in reaching out for more information.

City Councilmember Arian Velazquez-Ornelas asked Senator Blanco’s representatives if they had heard anything from TxDOT about the possibility of a bypass that would allow hazmat freight traffic to drive around Presidio, rather than through the heart of town — and was told it is too soon for the agency to have explored the possibility. “It’s still basically in the inception phase,” Cereceres explained. “By the time that they’re able to conduct all of the studies, it might be five years. It might be moot at that point.”

Newton agreed with Velazquez-Ornelas that getting a bypass built around the city for freight cargo was a top priority. “We really need to fast track the truck route. Otherwise, we’ll run into the same problem. Even if they aren’t hauling diesel, there are still big trucks wanting to go through Presidio.” 

Newton reported that he had also looped in the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees treaty agreements on the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico. “The state bridges don’t have any kind of containment system — if something went across and leaked, you could contaminate the Río Grande,” he said. 

In light of the health and safety concerns, council members Arian Velazquez-Ornelas and John Razo agreed that they needed to “start drafting ordinances as soon as possible.” “I really don’t see any reason for us to wait,” she said.