Environmental Response Team plays crucial role in crisis situations

“ERT” prepared for environmental incidents of any size, day or night

Incidents and accidents that cause environmental impacts happen nearly every day across Kentucky.

Sometimes the environmental impacts from an accident are small. A few gallons of diesel spilled onto a roadway would count as a relatively small accident. And sometimes the environmental impacts are felt for years after the accident.  Those environmental impacts might be as serious as harmful materials seeping into the drinking water supply or chemicals released into the air that make it harmful or potentially deadly to breathe.

Tornado damage
Tornadoes did massive damage in Allen County in February, 2008. ERT responders were there to assist in environmental cleanup. Photo by Mike Sapp

When accidents happen that can cause real or even potential environmental impacts, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection dispatches its Environmental Response Team, known as ERT.

The ERT is trained to respond immediately to environmental emergencies such as accidents where hazardous materials may have been spilled or released. They have expertise in the use of equipment and methods to monitor air, water and soil for hazardous materials and pollutants that arise from transportation accidents, facility spills and large fires.

ERT is part of the Kentucky Natural Disaster Plan, which was formed after the severe tornadoes of 1974.  They responds to natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and other severe weather, earthquakes, forest fires, landslides and water shortages.  During natural disasters, ERT helps ensure the stability of hazardous materials releases and works to limit further environmental damage.

Recently, the ERT responded to the massive flooding in Johnson County, where hazardous material containers were strewn across the flood-damaged area. As part of the response, ERT used a drone to spot potential hazards in the flooded area to make sure the environment was protected.

ERT cross trains with first responders to work with barriers that can contain oil or fuel spills into water ways.
Airal Photos P & L
P & L train derailed Oct. 29, 2012.

The volunteers were there for several days to make sure hazardous material containers were not leaking their contents into the environment.

ERT responses, like the one in Johnson County, sometimes are very large in scale. The April 2015 GE plant fire in Louisville, the P&L train derailment in October, 2012 and the Martin County coal slurry spill back in 2000 are all examples of large-scale ERT responses.

Slurry Spill overhead
The Martin County Coal Corp. slurry spill in 2000 was one of the largest environmental disasters ever recorded. Approximately 300 million gallons of slurry covered waterways for miles, killing wildlife and polluting streams.

The Martin County spill was a significant environmental disaster.  The amount of slurry spilled in the Martin County event was approximately 300 million gallons. ERT Branch Manager Robbie Francis was a relatively new ERT employee on Oct. 11, 2000 when the coal slurry from the Martin County Coal Corporation slurry pond broke loose into an underground mine. The pond emptied its contents into waterways, roadways and ground water. It polluted drinking water sources for miles.  Slurry killed wildlife in 100 miles of waterways, and eventually ended up in the Ohio River.


Whatever the size or scope, ERT is equipped and trained to coordinate with first responders like firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement to provide protection of human health and the environment. For instance, when a vehicle crash in 2015 on the I-75 bridge over the Kentucky River released diesel and other chemicals into the river, ERT was called. Putting their training into action, the ERT and Lexington Fire Department put hundreds of feet of containment barriers on the river to contain the fuel and remove it from the river.

That response is a perfect example of the importance of cross training with first responders and other state and federal response agencies. The ERT cross-trains with other first responder agencies to ensure when environmental disasters occur, the ERT first responders can help mitigate the environmental impacts with equipment and knowledge based on best practices.

ERT has trained extensively with area fire fighters to be the first line of defense in the event of a large spill of fuel or crude oil. Response equipment is stationed around the state so that these containment booms can be placed quickly and effectively if they’re needed during an emergency.

Team members recently completed a large training exercise using specialized air monitoring equipment that several agencies have in common. The exercise showed that multiple agencies can share critical information to a central location using combined resources and cutting-edge technology.

The ERT is a specialized unit of the Department for Environmental Protection performed by staff who have other roles within the department. While performing their normal duties to keep the environment safe, the ERT staffers are on call for a week at a time to respond to potential environmental disasters.

Boom Training

Staff just don’t get to be an ERT member without training at least twice a month, to make sure skills stay sharp and cooperative relationships are maintained. Those relationships can be crucial when real disasters like Johnson County flooding or coal slurry devastating Martin County happen.

Special teams within ERT have extra duties to ensure equipment is always ready to perform as needed. Responders may spend long hours even on a relatively minor incident or be deployed for several days away from home on a large incident or natural disaster. Members are also expected to perform some level of outreach to responders and facilities that may be the source of a future environmental emergency.

If toxic releases can be mitigated early in the process, cleanup is easier and the environment is better for it. In any of these instances, the ERT is there to protect people and the environment, coordinate with first responders  and provide the best crisis response possible.