Businesses and residents in western Wisconsin may soon be facing more challenges as a result of additional cuts proposed by Gov. Walker’s Division of Emergency Management to the state’s Hazardous Materials (hazmat) Response Network. For years, this statewide hazmat network of highly trained fire fighters and emergency personnel have responded to dangerous accidents involving chemicals, radioactive materials, explosives, and flammable substances.
In western Wisconsin, the La Crosse Regional Hazmat Response Team has responded to dozens of emergency situations over the past decade. Our region has one of the highest number of hazmat incident rates in the state – second only to Milwaukee.
In 2007, when hundreds near Goose Island had to evacuate after a massive mudslide derailed train cars containing acid, hazmat responders secured the accident scene and protected nearby residents. When there was a dangerous chemical spill on I-90/94 in 2010, the regional hazmat team helped to contain and clean up the site. And when a chemical fire broke out at a Sparta business this fall, hazmat teams were on the scene to safely put out the fire.
In Gov. Walker’s budget, the La Crosse hazmat team received a ten percent cut in state aid. While there has been an increased need for emergency response services, fire departments and hazmat teams in our region and across the state have been forced to do more with less.
Now, a hastily prepared plan put forth by the Governor’s Emergency Management Agency would cut an additional forty percent of funding from the La Crosse regional team. This unexpected reduction in state assistance will significantly impact the ability of our first responders to provide quality emergency services that are needed to protect the safety and security of our communities.
Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to the head of the Division of Emergency Management encouraging him to work together with local leaders, fire department chiefs, and legislators so that any future changes would have broad support. Unfortunately, the plan that is being forced upon local fire departments ignores decades of on-the-ground experience from our emergency response personnel and has strong opposition from many businesses, communities, and first responders in our region.
When hazmat accidents do occur, we need to make sure that they are controlled in a safe manner. While Gov. Walker continues to talk about creating a more business friendly climate in our state, this proposal will have the exact opposite effect. Slashing funding for hazmat programs will discourage economic growth and jeopardize local safety. If we want to create jobs and attract new businesses to our region, investing in public safety must be a top priority.
Jennifer Shilling represents the 32nd Senate District which covers La Crosse, Vernon, Crawford and parts of Monroe and Richland Counties.