By Megan Spees
MONTROSE – About 80 representatives of federal, state and private agencies converged on Montrose Tuesday and Wednesday for an Upper Mississippi River spill response and wildlife response training seminar.
The two-day event was organized by the Upper Mississippi River Hazardous Spills Coordination Group, a coalition of numerous federal and state agencies that join together as the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association.
Federal organizations involved in UMRBA include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. State agencies include the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Illinois EPA, Missouri DNR, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Wisconsin DNR.
The Upper Mississippi River region’s response team meets twice a year and tries to have training exercises at least once annually. Mike Coffey, a contaminants biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Rock Island, Ill., said the coalition tries to gather at a location with a high probability for accidents. The riverfront near Montrose is a prime spot due to pipeline crossings and commercial vessel traffic.
The small town also is centrally located between the Quad Cities and St. Louis, making it easier for the coalition to draw attendees from both metropolitan areas.
Both Coffey and Joe Davis, federal on-scene coordinator of EPA Region 7 based in Kansas City, Kan., said the community was extremely accommodating during the seminar.
Montrose Mayor Bobby Reid spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday learning about spill response alongside the experts.
“These guys are so professional and so on the ball,” Reid said about the agency representatives. “Everyone seems to know their jobs.”
Participants spent all day Tuesday attending classroom and practical sessions at the Ivor Fowler Community Center. There, they heard presentations about emergency spill response, boom and containment strategies; the incident command system; wildlife reconnaissance; and response safety. Hands-on presentations were conducted regarding the use of booming equipment as well as personal protective equipment, wildlife capture and transport, and disinfection protocol.
On Wednesday, the group used Riverview Park for field sessions. Agency representatives demonstrated containment structures, wildlife reconnaissance and rehabilitation, boom deployment and wildlife recovery. Reid was particularly fascinated with the boom deployment exercise Wednesday afternoon.
“They’re out on the river right now,” he said at the time. “It’s interesting to watch them laying out the booms to catch the oil.”
Montrose residents also took an interest in the commotion at the riverfront, driving and walking down to check out the action.
Davis noted that the seminar in Montrose was unique due to the inclusion of wildlife services. While the USDA Wildlife Services and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are charged with the task of caring for oiled birds and animals, the EPA deals with the aftermath of spills on water and land.
The EPA employs wildlife deterrent techniques, also known as hazing, to prevent unoiled animals from entering oiled areas. Deterrents can be visual (reflectors, flags, balloons, etc.) or auditory (propane cannons, alarms, model wildlife distress calls, etc.). The same methods often are used to scare birds away from airport runways.
Coffey said there’s been an increase in recent spills throughout the region. He noted one that occurred about two years ago on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and two last winter in the Chicago area. The largest spill ever in the State of Iowa happened just last week on the North Raccoon River.
U.S. Coast Guard MST3 Eric Prufer, who’s stationed in Rock Island, was one of four Coast Guard members attending the seminar. He explained that the Coast Guard’s role in the event of a spill is to supervise private clean-up contractors and address safety issues as they arise.
The Coast Guard gave a presentation about boater safety during the event.
“The whole wildlife (response) thing is new to us,” Prufer said. “This is a good learning opportunity.”
The seminar also allowed Prufer and his colleagues a chance to brush up on their knowledge of boom deployment and oil control tactics. The opportunity to network with other agencies outside of an emergency situation was another plus.
“This is the most fun I have with my job,” Prufer said. “I sit behind a desk a lot, unfortunately.”
Meals were served at Kinnick on the River in Montrose.