A Shelburne Selectboard member who is employed by the University of Vermont Health Network says she believes local hospitals “do not have the response capabilities to deal with a mass casualty event.”
Dr. Colleen Parker made the comment in a sworn affidavit filed this week by the Shelburne town government in its contentious lawsuit with the Vermont Railway. The issue involves the Selectboard’s 3-2 decision in early August to enact a hazardous materials ordinance designed to limit the work of Vermont Railway and other businesses.
Town lawyers are using Parker’s two-page affidavit in trying to block a preliminary injunction requested by the railroad in the 20-month-old civil lawsuit. A hearing is planned later this month in U.S. District Court in Burlington.
Parker wrote in her affidavit: “The capabilities in Burlington are not the same as a large urban hospital.” She went on to criticize the size of the pediatric intensive care unit at the UVM Medical Center.
The unit “is only one room and this would be insufficient to deal with a mass casualty event,” she said.
Parker, who works for UVM at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y., said she is “professionally very familiar with the capabilities of the local hospitals,” especially at UVM. Parker said she did her medical residency there, and her husband, Dr. Craig Bartlett, is a professor of medicine and attending physician at UVM in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery.
The UVM Medical Center — and others involved in health and safety — took exception to Parker’s comments.
“The UVM Medical Center has comprehensive mass casualty response plans that have been approved by federal regulators. We also regularly participate in drills with the state of Vermont and numerous public safety agencies to ensure our readiness,” said Dawn LeBaron, vice president of operations and incident commander.
She said the pediatric intensive care unit has four beds and the hospital can increase the number if necessary.
“We are a certified Level 1 Trauma Center, a designation granted by the American College of Surgeons that depends in part on the capability to respond to mass casualty events,” LeBaron said. The American College of Surgeons mandates that the hospital meet disaster standards, including commitment, readiness, resources, policies, patient care and performance improvement.
“All Vermont hospitals, including the Medical Center, participate in an annual cycle of training and exercises to prepare for a mass casualty and disaster situation,” said Chris Bell, director of the division of emergency preparedness, response and injury prevention for the Vermont Health Department.
He said a large railroad explosion was one of the last statewide emergency training exercises.
Vermont Emergency Management takes those cooperative training exercises seriously, so people are truly prepared for the real event, according to spokesman Mark Bosma.
Parker also said that Shelburne Bay serves as the drinking water source for Shelburne and other towns. She said the potential of contamination of the drinking water “presents significant health risks.”
Marc Heath, one of the Burlington lawyers for the railroad, said his client plans to file a written rebuttal. He said part of it will question Parker’s qualifications to weigh in on the capabilities of the hospital and the delivery of drinking water.
He noted the fight is over salt storage facilities the railroad has installed.
“We are talking about road salt. It is not a hazardous material by any standard,” Heath said.
Shelburne gets its municipal drinking water from the regional Champlain Water District, which has two intakes in Shelburne Bay.
“We have source protection plans,” said James Fay, the district’s general manager. The district, which provides water to 12 municipal systems in nine communities outside Burlington, should be able to address any possible contamination problem, he said.
The solutions range from additional treatment of water to switching on a special connection with the city of Burlington, which has its own intake and treatment system, Fay said. He said the district also has water storage across Chittenden County.
He said the Champlain Water District intakes are about a half mile out from shore and 75 feet deep. He said the district undergoes various training scenarios and had a tabletop exercise two weeks ago with Green Mountain Power.
Fees piling up
Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2017, the Selectboard has spent $378,403 for the town attorney for just the Vermont Railway lawsuit, and a total of $582,308 for the town attorney during the two years. Legal fees since July 1 were not immediately available.
The Parker affidavit is one of two exhibits attached to a 21-page response by Town Attorney Claudine Safar to the request to block the ordinance.
The other affidavit is from Town Manager Joe Colangelo, who also is the zoning administrator. He was named as a defendant when the lawsuit was filed in January 2016.
Colangelo, who was hired in April 2014, said in his affidavit, “I have been aware that the storage of hazardous substances in Shelburne has been a concern with members of the Town of Shelburne Selectboard for many years. … Due to more imminent concerns,” it was only recently that the selectboard passed an ordinance covering storing, handling and distributing hazardous substances.
Colangelo and selectboard Chairman Gary von Stange have said the discussion has been going on for at least three years, but the Shelburne News was unable to find minutes of meetings or other public records where it was discussed.
Colangelo did not specify in his affidavit what other pressing town issues prevented the selectboard from taking action in recent years on the hazardous materials ordinance.
When reached by phone Wednesday, Colangelo referred to the regular crush of town business as competing with work on the ordinance. “There is an immense amount of stuff – day to day, week-to-week, year-to-year, that needs to get done in a municipality that is a $12 million business. It includes town government, water, sewer, public safety, recreation, a full suite of services.”
He said Shelburne, a community of 7,200 residents, “has a lot of citizen involvement.” He said the voter turnout percentage is among the highest in the state.
Parker, von Stange and Vice Chairman John Kerr have come under fire from some residents and businesses who believe the trio rushed to pass the ordinance to beat a court deadline. Some companies are concerned that the regulation may force them out of business.
Selectboard members Jerry Storey and Josh Dein voted against the ordinance, saying it was hurried without full consideration. They have proposed that it either be rescinded or tabled until it can be rewritten or amended. However, other board members have not supported that move. The ordinance is due to take effect in early October.