Editor's note: This story is from January 2012.
Within just an hour and a half of being alerted of a chemical spill at Prairie Island nuclear plant on Thursday morning, directors with Goodhue County and the city of Red Wing were hustling to get their Emergency Operations Center up and running.
A plant employee discovered at 3:53 a.m. that industrial bleach was leaking out of a hole in a 2-inch pipe. Xcel Energy, which owns the plant, sent out an alert at 4:01 a.m. to emergency personnel. Calls then went out to representatives from the Minnesota State Patrol, Goodhue County Sheriff's Office, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Red Wing Police Department and Goodhue County Health and Human Services, among other agencies.
"It's kind of a coordinated effort but everybody has their discipline in which they work," Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin explained. By about 6:40 a.m. -- less than three hours after Prairie Island nuclear plant declared an alert at 3:53 a.m. -- the EOC was considered totally functional. "It shows the drills that we do really pay off," McNurlin said. Exercises -- which are graded on a federal level -- are held every other year, with drills held in between.
Since an Xcel Energy employee was in the EOC, directors quickly knew that the spill Thursday morning involved chlorine which was contained and not posing dangers to the public.
"Immediately we found out that the event would not escalate beyond what it was," Goodhue County Emergency Management Director Diane Richter-Biwer said, explaining why only about 35 people were called into the EOC when the number is normally closer to 60. Within hours, a chemical crew was already cleaning up the more than 500 gallons of sodium hypochlorite that had leaked. Still, the services that were needed at the EOC remained in operation throughout the day.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety also activated its Emergency Operations Center to monitor the situation at the nuclear plant. By about 2:30 p.m. the EOC at the Goodhue County Law Enforcement Center was finished with operations, and the next hour was spent talking about things that went right and wrong. In addition to a need for updated call lists, another improvement discussed was developing a plan for a rumor control telephone number.
Rumors and delays
The Prairie Island Indian Community, which is within a few hundred yards from the nuclear plant, also expressed concern about the rumors -- some of which television stations apparently used as fact.
"Unfortunately, those initial news reports - including the tickers at the bottom of the television screen - reported that there was a radiation leak at the plant and that the schools in Prescott and Ellsworth, Wisconsin, were closed or delayed because of the leak," the Tribal Council said in a prepared statement. "These news reports created confusion because they conflicted from the initial reports we received from Xcel and the NRC."
Xcel notified emergency responders at 4:01 a.m. There was then a three-hour delay before Xcel notified the media at 7:01 a.m.
Mary Sandok of Xcel said the plant's initial focus is to contact local and state emergency officials, including Treasure Island Resort & Casino security dispatchers.
"Our media relations team is on a later call-out list," she said. "We are reviewing all of our processes, including communications, in the wake of this event to ensure all of our stakeholders receive timely and accurate information."
With only minor issues for Goodhue County to work out before another emergency comes around, Richter-Biwer was pleased with the outcome of local officials' performance during the alert.
"A lot of people have always told me, 'Why do you drill an exercise? If there's a nuclear event nobody's going to show up,'" she said. "This proves that everybody showed up. The responders were fantastic."