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Budget woes in Tooele County lead to hazmat cuts

Safety » Activist calls changes “alarming,” but officials say response capability won’t be harmed.

First Published Oct 08 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 14 2013 11:31 pm

A multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in Tooele County has prompted commissioners to slash budgets and departments, including the hazardous materials division within the sheriff’s office, tasked with overseeing the response to a worst-case scenario.

While budget woes aren’t unique to Tooele County, what is unique is that Tooele is host to a radioactive waste landfill, a magnesium plant and an interstate highway on which tons of hazardous materials travel daily.

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For people concerned about the amount of toxic material in the county, the decision to cut the hazmat operation is worrisome. But county officials insist that only a few positions will be affected and that training and equipment are still available.

"I think it’s alarming," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah), an environmental advocacy group. "There are so many toxic and hazardous activities that happen out there that I think it’s critical that you have trained professionals who can respond quickly."

If response time or training is diminished because of budget cuts, that could affect more than just Tooele County, Thomas said. "It’s not just a Tooele County issue, it’s a statewide issue."

Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park said the only effect on his office so far is the loss of Harry Shinton, a deputy who oversaw hazmat operations for more than 20 years. Shinton planned to retire at the end of 2012 but left early so the cuts wouldn’t have to be absorbed elsewhere. Park said he’ll miss Shinton’s experience, but most of his deputies have the necessary training to pick up the slack.

"We still have hazmat capabilities within the sheriff’s office," Park said.

Given the size of the county’s fiscal problem, Tooele County Commissioner Jerry Hurst said he is willing to live with a less formal hazmat program. In his six years in office, Hurst said he could count "on one hand" the number of times the county’s hazmat teams have responded to an emergency. But the cuts can only go so far, he said.

"I don’t want to get to the point that we’re compromised in response and capabilities," Hurst said.

Hurst said the county also is looking at contracting with a private hazmat company to bolster services.

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For Shinton, whose job was eliminated after he retired in September, the cuts came at a relatively good time due to the closure earlier this year of the Deseret Chemical Depot, where nearly half of the Army’s stockpile of chemical weapons was once stored.

"That’s the good news: all of the dangerous stuff has been destroyed," he said. "So now the government’s not giving us the money. That’s the bad news.

"The only thing that’s really different is this old guy’s going to pasture," he said.

Unexpected losses » The county was preparing for less revenue, according to Hurst. It had been known for almost a decade that the weapons stashed at Deseret Chemical Depot would eventually be destroyed, with a resulting loss in government funding.

What the county didn’t expect was less revenue from EnergySolutions, whose facility in Clive disposes of low-grade radioactive waste from around the country and gives 5 percent of its profits to the county in mitigation fees.

"The mitigation fees from the west desert, especially EnergySolutions, are way down," Hurst said.

The county reported that those fees dropped from a high of about $13 million in 2005 to about $2 million so far in 2012. Hurst said the average monthly payment has dropped by about $300,000 a month.

The county also is losing money from its jail, which has seen fewer federal inmates than projected when the new beds were added. With the combined losses, the county is currently about $2.6 million in the red, according to Hurst. So far, 33 county positions have been cut, mostly Corrections officials hired to watch over inmates who haven’t shown up at the jail.

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