The aftermath: Disaster waste management
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
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
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
“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
“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