Crisis management on the farm: start planning before it happens

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Routine maintenance and safety practices can help prevent spills of hazardous materials like fertilizer, pesticide, oil and fuel. But what kinds of risks do these hazardous materials pose during a farmstead crisis?

And what kinds of contamination issues are related to fire-fighting foam or other types of chemicals used during a farmstead emergency response? These are critical questions that farmers need to consider in preparing emergency response plans for their farm site.

Making sure first responders have knowledge of on-site hazardous substances and nearby waterways and wetlands can help avoid unintended contamination of these resources. Farmers should also consult their insurance agent to ensure they are aware of any exclusions related to emergency response activities and the farmer’s responsibility for reporting incidents.

“Don’t wait until you have a claim to learn what your insurance covers,” said Steven Cain, Purdue Extension Disaster Specialist and Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Homeland Security Project Director. “You need a clear understanding of what would happen under these circumstances.”

Completing a farmstead map that clearly identifies the location of hazardous materials is the first step. Farmers may want to consider having emergency responders tour their farm site to help reveal any unrecognized hazard potential in the event of fire, tornado or explosion.

“Meet with your insurance agent to review coverage and learn all you can about exclusions or coverage options,” Cain says. “Some policies require a specific time frame for reporting loss, which isn’t covered if it’s not properly reported.”

Farmers who have high-value livestock or crops should ask specific questions about related coverage details above and beyond fair market value. It’s also critical to inquire about how enhancing or installing security measures affects insurance premiums.

“Get everything in writing,” Cain said. “There’s no such thing as verbal confirmation. Insurance agents may unintentionally misinterpret the way a company writes your policy. They may not clearly understand your inquiry and provide you with inadequate coverage or no coverage at all.”

All notices and amendments from insurance companies should be carefully reviewed in a timely manner. Lowered premiums or premiums that don’t increase may be due to reduced coverage, which may not be apparent if you don’t investigate.

Whenever possible, centralizing chemical supplies can help emergency responders avoid complicating a crisis by unintentionally contaminating soil, water or air with those products. Clearly marking the building where products are stored and making sure containers are adequately marked are all important steps in preventing hazardous spills. Leftover chemicals of any kind should always be returned to the storage site and properly labeled.

Details provided to emergency responders about the chemical storage building should include identification of any valuable equipment stored in the building, the building construction date and dimensions and the type of construction materials used, such as concrete slabs, crawl spaces and wood or steel trusses.

“Describe what type of roof, windows and floors are in the building,” Cain said. “Note how many types and sizes of containers are held there. Keep those inventories as current as possible.”

It also helps first responders to know if there are any drains in the building and where they lead. Is the equipment motorized and does it have gas or diesel engines? Does the building contain any compressed gas or propane tanks? If there are large drums of product, what’s the drum capacity and what does it hold?

Costs that can be incurred due to a hazardous waste spill or contamination during an emergency include on-site remediation and cleanup, off-site remediation and cleanup (i.e. a neighbor), bodily injury claims, legal pollution liability and property damage claims.

Environmental restoration costs can involve measures such as capping, testing, monitoring and disposal of hazardous materials. Depending on the scope of the contamination, it could involve evacuation, relocation, diminished property value, pain and suffering and loss of income.

In the event of some type of spill or contamination, the State Department of Natural Resources should be immediately notified to assist with cleanup and any necessary remediation. To safely and effectively clean up a hazardous material spill, hire a specialist to complete the job as soon as possible. Items that could save time, effort and expense related to a spill include a broadcast absorbent, drums, barrels and buckets, tarps and shovels.

Depending on the type and location of a spill, building a dike around it or pouring absorbent materials on it may help keep it from spreading. Contaminated soil could be dug up and placed on a tarp. A tarp might also be used to cover a contaminated area and/or divert runoff from the area until it can be thoroughly cleaned up.

In the event of a spill, never put yourself in a dangerous situation that exposes you to unhealthy levels of hazardous substances or in a situation you can’t get out of. An accidental spill isn’t illegal, but failure to report it is.

Information authorities will ask for when a spill is reported include: your name and address; location of the spill and name of the property owner; physical state, quantity and chemical characteristics of the hazardous material; where the spill occurred and the area to which it was spread; actions taken to stop the release and/or minimize environmental impact; and actual or potential impacts to human health and the environment.

As part of the emergency preparation plan, contact your State DNR to obtain the phone number for reporting hazardous material spills.

“These state agencies want to assist with agricultural spills,” Cain said. “It’s their job to protect the environment and they have the education and experience necessary to deal with all kinds of spills. The information and advice they can provide will make any spill containment and cleanup easier and faster, which means less cost and liability for you.”

State agencies can also assist with compliance related to all state and federal laws. They can also provide information on legally transporting and disposing of contaminated soils.

“All cleanup activities should be documented, including the use of photos to help illustrate what happened and what was done to resolve it,” Cain said. “Depending on the type of material involved, you may need to submit written documentation related to the spill and cleanup activities.”

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