I took my annual refresher training for HAZWOPER site work today. For those of you lucky enough to NOT know what the heck im talking about, HAZWOPER stands for HAZardous Waste OPerations and Emergency Response. This is the worker training law that was put into place after the creation of the Superfund Act (CERCLA) in the early 1980s. It mandates the standards to protect workers during cleanup operations at some of the most polluted and toxic sites in the country. Protections for these workers is one the things our government does right, they deserve it, and I’m glad that it was made a priority and a law.
Because some of my scientific work deals with and requires access to these types of sites to understand how microorganisms might contribute to their cleanup, I have to sit though a full day of refresher training each year to continue the work. While this can be kind of dry, I usually learn something new each year.
Not least of all, I as a scientist get to sit in a room with folks that are the real ‘boots on the ground’ in these cleanup situations. I take this training at the local union hall in Oak Ridge of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council. I hear their stories of what the bad old days were like, what happened to them and their loved ones who were exposed to this nastiness, and what is and is not working in terms of cleaning up these messes. I have tremendous respect for what these folks do and what it has meant to our generation to get these messes dealt with once and for all, and am thankful that we have regulations in place that this kind of stuff should not (and better not) happen again.
Some of you may know of Love Canal up in the NY area and how it contributed to the new environmental regulations that eventually led to CERCLA and HAZWOPER. This year in my class I learned a little about the ‘Valley of the Drums’ near Louisville, KY, and came home and did a little more reading about it. Unlike Love Canal where the source of the toxins was pretty much invisible and buried underground (so much so that houses were built right up to it without the developers, owners or families living there knowing), in Bullitt County this was right out in the open, in all its ugliness, for anyone to see. When it caught fire, it not only brought it to the full and immediate attention of the sites many neighbors, but it also became a powerful visual image nationwide that helped push through the cleanup laws and safety regulations that we are now lucky to have.