The aftermath: Disaster waste management

Waste left by flooding. The mixed materials are usually slated for the landfill.

The recent slew of natural disasters around the nation has highlighted the need for systems and procedures designed to minimize the devastating impact and clean up the resulting mess.

Most recently, the flooding and tornadoes in the Midwest have shown that foresight and a healthy dose of common sense can reap big benefits when it comes to disaster cleanup.

Kansas, whose eastern border is bounded by the Missouri River, was not affected by this season’s flooding. But the state has been affected by major tornadoes in the past three years, and last year more than 40 counties were flooded by a combination of rising rivers and 20-inch rainfalls over several days.

“The amount of debris from tornados in Kansas has been two or three times greater than [the debris] from floods,” says Bill Bider, director of the Kansas Bureau of Waste Management (BWM). “It has been two years of major debris and we are in the middle of cleaning up the debris from two tornadoes that hit us a month ago.”

Debris cleanup operations are still underway in many places, and one of the key elements in headache avoidance is the state mandates that no new landfills and waste transfer stations (WTS) may be sited on a flood plain.

“A couple of old landfills permitted before current regulations became effective were flooded last year, and they were unusable to handle debris,” says Bider. “But for nearly 20 years, no landfills have been or can be sited or permitted in flood plains, and all our new landfills are accessible in cases of flood.”

When Coffeeville was flooded last year, the oil refinery, located in a flood plain, filled the town with oil. Many buildings were ruined, and the contaminated debris and vegetation had to be handled carefully.

“The homes had to be demolished and specially managed,” says Bider. “We sent some of the waste to an mixed municipal solid waste landfill, but for the majority, we established a new landfill disposal cell adjacent to an existing private landfill.

“We respond quickly and coordinate with local government officials – and in some cases, private companies – that are already in the waste business in the area. It is our philosophy to take care of things promptly but also properly, with an eye to certain environmental considerations. We do not ignore the environment to clean up the mess and we have to follow procedures.”

Procedures usually include reasonable attempts to separate debris by type: household hazardous waste, appliances, e-waste, tires, etc., and to recycle whatever is viable.

“Our goal is to always divert the material that cannot go into our landfills,” says Bider. “Whether it was a flood or tornado, with recycling it tends to be metals, various chemical waste and e-waste. Woody waste is recovered and some is burned or mulched. We recycle and recover what we can.”

However, practicality and the need to redevelop quickly mean that recycling isn’t always an option.

“Economics do come into play and FEMA does provide funding when recycling is part of the recovery. But I have seen and heard of some communities with waste piles that have sat around for long periods of time because of the overemphasis to recycle,” Bider adds. “Common sense should prevail.”

Missouri also has practices and policies that mitigate the risk of a flooded landfill.

According to Jim Hull, director of the solid waste program for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, “Landfills can be sited on a flood plain, but they have to be protected. Most landfills don’t locate in alluvial settings near rivers because our landfill siting requirements entail the effective monitoring of groundwater beneath the site.

“Even if one of [the landfills] was at risk to be flooded, there are plans in place to completely clear out all the trash in the facility, and they may take precautions to empty fuel tanks and leachate holding tanks.”

When flooding or tornadoes do leave a mess, Missouri policy becomes flexible for the duration of the cleanup effort.

“We frequently waive state bans on certain materials entering landfills,” says Hull. “There is always an emphasis on trying to recycle and recover as much material as possible. Sometimes there is time to separate out all this stuff, but once it’s in one pile, it’s pretty much destined for the landfill.”

Alex Moon, supervisor for the solid waste section of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says that despite the devastating flooding the state experienced recently, its landfills and WTS’s were relatively unaffected.

“The closest [landfill] that could have been impacted was in Cedar Rapids near the river, but the water didn’t get high enough to reach it,” says Moon.

But it’s not just water flooding into landfills that people in Moon’s position worry about – it’s also about the deluge of debris into landfills that occurs after the disaster has taken place.

“When you get a major disaster, [landfill space] that you expected to last for five years now only lasts 60 to 90 days. When that happens, you can’t construct new space fast enough.”

According to Moon, debris from disasters is sorted and recycled as much as possible. However, dry tornado debris is much easier to sort and dispose of than the wet flood debris that is more prone to contamination.

Moon says that he is “impressed with the amount of source separation and recycling that is occurring to minimize the amount [of waste] going into landfills.” He stress that “the EPA has been helpful in that respect by setting up collection sites for appliances and electronic goods, and by assisting in the hardest hit areas – Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.”