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August 2007

Solid waste industry needs to prepare for disasters

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Waste companies were overwhelmed when collecting household hazardous wastes in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Hurricane season is now underway, with an above-average chance that a major hurricane will hit the Gulf Coast this year, repeating the destructive 2005 season. It is not just the possibilities of hurricanes, however. There are wildfires, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and even an avian flu outbreak, not to mention acts of terrorism.

What kinds of risk-management plans need to be in place for municipal solid waste programs across North America? Is enough being done now to prepare?

Most municipalities have proper plans in place for day-to-day collection and disposal of waste, said Romasa Mohapatra, an architect, environmental planner, and scholar at the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Canada.

“What one doesn’t think about is a well-laid-out plan in case a natural disaster strikes a city,” Mohapatra said. “Disasters themselves generate large quantities of waste, not to forget that a lot of the waste is hazardous and contaminates the soil.”

Planners need to consider the immediate danger to a large landfill site very close to growing neighborhoods, Mohapatra said. “Any kind of risk management plan is futile without the involvement of the community. Plans need to be proactive in nature.”

Dangers need to be considered prior to a disaster. “There needs to be integration at the urban planning level, where cities need to identify risks prior to laying out plans,” Mohapatra said. Cities need to identify and map out the most vulnerable locations and risks related to solid waste. “What one really needs to do is go into communities and start with awareness programs, which emphasize issues related to solid waste,” Mohapatra said.

Bruce Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Washington DC-based trade group National Solid Wastes Management Association, said solid waste companies are often better prepared for a disaster than most cities and other units of government.

“Most major disaster cleanups are done by private waste-management companies working as contractors with local and federal government,” Parker said.

“The national companies and large regional firms have an advantage in that they have more equipment, drivers and other assets to deploy to assist in a disaster.”

Disaster plans for municipalities need to include directives for recycling, materials reuse, hazardous waste treatment, disposal options, environmental and permitting compliance requirements, emergency waivers and compensation, Parker said.

“Execution is where things will break down,” Parker said.

“Solid waste companies are an absolutely critical component to any disaster plan. But, the ultimate success of waste companies is dependent on the affected local government having a comprehensive and well-organized disaster preparedness plan.”

To help members and others prepare for potential disasters, the trade group prepared a research report on how to prepare for an avian influenza outbreak.

The report explores the role the waste management industry may play in managing infected carcasses and associated materials, such as feces, bedding and feed. The paper also provides guidance on the protection of waste management employees involved in the treatment, transportation, and disposal of infected carcasses.

Because the influenza virus is highly contagious, immediate culling of infected and exposed birds is the first line of defense for the protection of human health.

“Most disposal options require special procedures for the transportation of infected carcasses from the point of origin to the disposal site to prevent the spread of the disease. The safe transport of carcasses and associated contaminated materials may be a role for the private solid waste management industry,” according to the report.

“Waste management companies need to decide soon what role they are going to play in the management of infected carcasses and associated materials, including consideration of transportation and disposal issues as well as whether their employees are willing to handle these types of materials,” the research report concludes.

Roxanne Smith, press officer with the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC, said the location and nature of any potential disaster and the resulting types and quantities of waste could vary significantly and would impact a municipality or solid waste service provider’s ability to handle disaster debris.

“Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, ice storms, and tornadoes generate different types of waste, and the severity of the situation dictates the amount of waste to be managed. Municipalities and solid-waste service providers commonly work with neighbors and state agencies to develop disaster debris management plans,” Smith said.

“Discussions between the solid waste industry, communities and state solid-waste agencies could lead to a better understanding of existing capacity for debris and the potential need for developing new or expanded capacity, if preplanning indicates that the potential amount of debris could exceed current capacity.”

Smith said that the solid waste providers would have the ability to recycle some debris after a disaster, which would lessen the burden on landfill capacity.

“Communities should hold discussions to arrange pre-negotiated contracts for debris-management services. It is far better to have pre-negotiated contracts in place prior to a disaster rather than developing them after the fact,” Smith said.

“In addition to pre-negotiated contracts, communities should estimate potential debris amounts; perform an inventory of existing management operations; locate potential areas for staging/storage of debris; identify equipment and administrative needs; and develop a community awareness plan so people know what actions to take.”

Finally, communities need to know all the options available, Smith said. She said reimbursement from state/federal agencies may be easier to obtain if a cleanup plan is already in place before a disaster strikes.