Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: April 4, 1979
Title: Evacuation Chances ‘Slimmer’: County Relaxes Alert
Author: Ron Jury, Staff Writer

Dauphin County has relaxed its alert status on the contingency evacuation plans and told civil defense directors within a five-mile radius of the crippled Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station that they are the only ones who should maintain 24-hour operations.

The announcement came on the heels of meetings Tuesday where local municipal civil defense officials said they were having a problem keeping at a high level of readiness for a possible evacuation as people return to the area and volunteers are being forced to return to their jobs.

In a prepared statement, Commission Chairman John E. Minnich said, “While the situation at Three Mile Island remains of concern, no evacuation appears imminent. In view of this, the county commissioners have directed the Office of Emergency Preparedness to advise all local emergency preparedness personnel to stand down to a ‘standby alert status.’

“The office is requesting only local emergency preparedness directors within the five-mile radius to maintain 24-hour operations.

“County planning operations will continue and there will be no change in its (alert) status.
“Since a potentially dangerous situation continues to exist, all personnel should be capable of activation if needed,” Minnich said.

The county broadcast that message to local officials late Tuesday.

Some 200 local officials met in the courthouse Tuesday and were unanimous in saying that the governor should make a decision on the status of the current crisis and whether the alert should continue.

Minnich and several other officials strongly voiced that concern to the Governor’s Office on Tuesday. Minnich even delivered a letter from the commissioners to the Governor’s office.
However, Gov. Dick Thornburgh did not address that question at his press conference late Tuesday.

Minnich said this means that the four hospitals within the 10-mile radius can resume normal operations and admit non-emergency patients. The county will not attempt to hold the hospitals back, he said.

As part of the county’s plan, the hospitals were limiting admissions to keep patient populations at a minimum in the event of an evacuation.

Schools in that same 10-mile radius previously announced their plans to reopen this morning.
The commissioner said he did not agree with the return to normal, but agreed he is “acquiescing to higher-ups who have information” they are not sharing with the county.

Minnich said the county’s plans will be damaged if there is only several hours’ notice and an evacuation now has to be implemented.

The county plan relies heavily on school buses to provide necessary transportation in the event of an evacuation although the plans also call for using buses from Philadelphia and New York City.

If an evacuation is announced and the schools are in session, several hours will be lost until those buses can be pressed into service, Minnich added.

Local officials voiced strong concern about the status of the alert and one spokesman said “our capability to respond (to an evacuation on the local level) is rapidly diminishing” the longer the alert continues.

Another official said that “as the hours pass, we are losing volunteers.” He said that volunteers cannot afford to remain off their jobs if the situation does not merit it.

“Who is going to pay the lost wages” of these volunteers? a civil defense chief asked.

Many of the non-paid local volunteers have been manning civil defense offices and fire stations on a 24-hour basis in a constant state of readiness, officials said.

Minnich said that under the county’s relaxed alert, those volunteers can return to their jobs and only the civil defense directors need to maintain the operation.

The local officials accused the state of putting pressure on the school districts to reopen, but Lt. Gov. William Scranton III denied any pressure was being applied to the schools.

Scranton, who visited the county office briefly late Tuesday afternoon, said officials should assume the alert will remain until there is a cold shut down of the nuclear reactor, although the chances for an evacuation get “slimmer as time goes on.”

Asked whether the governor was going to downgrade the alert, Scranton said “not at this time,” and added that state officials are relying on status reports from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

County officials waited for the governor’s press conference and said they would take a cue from him on whether to relax the alert status or not.