WARRENTON - A barrel of unknown origin and contents has washed up on the shore at Sunset Beach. A group of curious beachcombers are examining the battered drum when it splits open without warning, releasing a toxic liquid that seriously burns one of the onlookers.

This particular scenario is all make-believe. The barrel, completely empty, actually sits on the grass at Camp Rilea. The “victim’s” only harm is a good soaking from the morning rain.

But the exercise Thursday, May 3 organized by the Clatsop County Emergency Management Division gave a host of local agencies the opportunity to test their procedures for dealing with an actual incident involving a hazardous material washing up on a local beach.

Participants included Warrenton and Gearhart fire departments, Astoria-based state HazMat 11 team, Seaside Police and Emergency Dispatch, Oregon State Fire Marshal, U.S. Coast Guard, Oregon State Police and state parks and highway departments, Medix, Providence Seaside Hospital, Clatsop County Public Health Department and Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES), along with the county emergency management office. The event was funded by a $6,500 grant from the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Office.

The players assumed their various roles, which included treating and transporting the victim, identifying the material, securing a perimeter, and arranging for the barrel’s removal and clean-up of the site. The exercise tested communications and protocols between the various agencies.

The exercise is part of local and regional efforts to prepare for the expected arrival on the Pacific Northwest coast of debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami, which swept millions of tons of material into the Pacific. While there’s expected to be virtually no risk of radiation associated with the damaged Japanese nuclear reactors, authorities to make sure there are tested plans in place to deal with other potentially harmful materials such as toxic chemicals.

Consultant Bill Vanderberg, who organized the event for the county, said a key goal of the exercise was to bring together local fire chiefs and Coast Guard representatives to make sure each is aware of the resources the other can bring to a hazardous waste incident.

“The fire chiefs and HazMat had a good dialogue,” he said of the day’s drill, which took place on the grounds of Camp Rilea.

In most cases fire agencies will be among the first responders on the scene, treating victims and assessing the seriousness of the situation, while the Coast Guard has the lead role in coordinating the removal of the material and clean-up of the surrounding area.

The Coast Guard has jurisdiction for hazardous material removal on all navigable waterways and the territorial seas, regardless of the source of the material.

Personnel from the agency’s Sector Columbia River Incident Management Division, which covers the West Coast from Grays Harbor, Wash. to Newport, Ore. and up the Columbia River to Longview, Wash., typically respond to a dozen or so calls involving “mystery barrels” each year, mostly on the ocean beaches, according to Chief Marine Science Technician Sean Kuschel.

Actual removal of the containers and clean-up of the surrounding site is handled by one of several contractors the Coast Guard can call on. The contractors are usually able to be on scene within an hour or two after a call from the Coast Guard, Kuschel said.

Most barrels appear on beaches in winter, when rough weather knocks them off passing ships. While many are harmless, some contain extremely toxic or volatile substances – a container retrieved last month held hydrochloric acid, Kuschel said. Even barrels of oil can be dangerous – some contain an additive that becomes unstable over time and can trigger an explosion if the barrel is punctured or even just kicked, he said.

For that reason, people are strongly advised not to touch barrels found on beaches, and instead call 911 to report the containers.

For information specific to Japanese tsunami debris, go to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration website, www.marinedebris.noaa.gov

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