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Haz-Mat team will bill its users

The City of Bainbridge government will start getting paid back in full for the work it does in responding to hazardous materials incidents, including cleanup of chemical spills and meth labs.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Bainbridge City Council passed a Hazardous Materials Cost Recovery ordinance, which aims to help the city government recoup what it spends to operate its Hazardous Materials Response team.

Since the team’s creation in 2004, it has been most frequently called out after the Sheriff’s Office or other agencies discover labs being used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine, also known as meth or crystal ice. Because the labs have fumes that can permanently damage breathing, or worse, cause an explosion, firefighters on the Haz-Mat team have to wear special suits that provide them with air and keep them safe from contamination and harm. The most-protective type of suits cost $3,000 each and generally can only be worn once due to safety regulations, Haz-Mat Team Commander Doyle Welch told the council at its March 16 meeting.

The Bainbridge Haz-Mat team, one of five that provide coverage in the large area between Valdosta and Albany, has also been called to several wrecks in which tanker trucks hauling petroleum products like gasoline end up turned over on their side. If the fuel leaks out, either the Haz-Mat team or a contractor hired by the shipping company has to clean it up so it doesn’t negatively affect the environment.

In the past, the Haz-Mat team has responded to incidents on a free basis, with all costs for expended gear and supplies being paid for by the city’s budget or state and federal government grants, Welch said.

With the city government’s finances severely constrained due to the economic downturn, City Manager Chris Hobby, Welch and Public Safety Director Larry Funderburke researched a way to help the city pay for its needed, but expensive Haz-Mat cleanups.

Bainbridge will now bill local governments and companies that call upon the team’s services. Hobby said local judges have also agreed to consider requiring convicted meth lab operators to pay for cleanup as part of their sentence.

The Decatur County Sheriff’s Office has already been paying for its use of the team for meth labs, according to Hobby.