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Edmonton fire chief says new HazMat team needed for hazardous spills

The decision not to fund a new HazMat crew in south Edmonton could have “catastrophic” consequences if city council doesn’t add it to the budget, according to Coun. Michael Walters.

Number of hazardous spills on the rise in the capital

Edmonton fire chief Ken Block says the number of hazardous materials calls is on the rise.

The decision not to fund a new HazMat crew in south Edmonton could have "catastrophic" consequences if city council doesn't add it to the budget, according to Coun. Michael Walters.

Edmonton Fire Services is asking for roughly $2.4 million per year to hire 25 HazMat technicians to respond to chemical, radiological and nuclear spills in the south part of the city and surrounding municipalities.

"Edmonton is a petrochemical centre," fire Chief Ken Block said Monday. "The risk in Edmonton is higher than most other municipalities."

Block hoped to have the new team in place by the end of 2018, but city staff chose not to fund it in the first draft of the city's three-year operating budget. The decision has now been left up to city council.

HazMat calls on the rise: fire chief

The city has only one HazMat team, with 110 trained technicians. Block said the number of calls for those technicians has risen steadily over the last few years. He said he expects that trend to continue.

"In 2014, we had 813 calls for our primary technician team," he said. "We project this year that number will be closer to 950."
'When we're trying to create a new team in a different part of the city, where we have an increased amount of industrial activity, that involves petroleum-based products. I don't think we should cheap out,' Coun. Michael Walters said. (CBC)

The number of railcars carrying petroleum products in Alberta is expected to increase by 242 per cent from 2012 to 2024, according to a report published by the Canadian Energy Research Institute. The report is cited as one of the justifications for council to fund the new team.

Interim city manager Linda Cochrane said the chief was "less than impressed" to find out the request was not funded. Many city councillors were surprised as well, including Walters.

"Our job is to build a safe city," Walters said. "To not fund it could be catastrophic."

City staff asked to investigate

Walters said he is worried someone could be hurt or killed if the city can't respond to an industrial accident quickly enough.

"When we're trying to create a new team in a different part of the city, where we have an increased amount of industrial activity, that involves petroleum-based products. I don't think we should cheap out," he said.

Coun. Mike Nickel asked city staff to investigate the possibility of charging the companies or people responsible for hazardous spills to contribute to the cleanup. He said it raises concerns about incidents going unreported, but added it's an option worth investigating.

Councillors will debate whether or not to add the new HazMat team to the budget later this week.

If the request is denied, Block said the fire department would do the best it can with the resources it uses right now.

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