Massive amounts of storm debris recycled Click to Enlarge
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This spring delivered a whirlwind of devastating tornados that brought death, injuries and heartbreak to thousands of people across the Southeast, Midwest and even into Massachusetts.

Recovery, as difficult as it is, has begun. The twisted buildings, downed trees, mangled vehicles and infrastructure rubble is being cleared away before reconstruction can be started. The bulk of the debris is being landfilled, but more and more is being recycled in safe, responsible ways.

On Saturday, April 16 in Raleigh, North Carolina, a total of 28 confirmed tornadoes ripped through central North Carolina killing 24 people, injured hundreds, destroying or damaging thousands of homes and commercial buildings, and knocking down trees and power lines. Five of the tornadoes were listed as EF3, with wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph – the worst tornados the state has seen in more than 20 years.

The area in and around Raleigh was one of the hardest hit. As the state capital and second largest city in North Carolina, it has a population just over 400,000 and is known as “The City of Oaks.” The tornados killed or damaged many of the city’s famed oak trees.

“These tornados were pretty bad. So far we have removed over 200,000 cubic yards of debris from fallen trees from the streets,” said Chris McGee, street superintendent for the City of Raleigh, Department of Public Works. He explained how Raleigh prepared for, and then handled the event after the tornados passed through. 

“During the first 72 hours, city forces go through the streets and we do cut and shove. We are cutting debris out of the way and shoving it over out of the street to get roads back open for emergency vehicles and allow people to get in and out of their homes. We just deal with the streets and don’t deal with any of the construction debris. That is left up to the property owner and their insurance company.”

McGee has responsibility for approximately 1,050 centerline miles of streets. The North Carolina Department of Transportation maintains another 250 miles of streets within the city limits, but relies on Raleigh to clear storm damages.

City crews worked night and day and had most everything shoved off to the side of the streets in 48 to 72 hours. “It’s chain saws, trucks, backhoes, front-end loaders and excavators – pretty much anything you can use to push, pull or cut what we have out there,” said McGee.

By the end of the second day, 99 percent of the streets were cleared. By the third day most everything was passable, although a few streets took several days to open because of power line issues.

“After the first 72 hours we call in our pre-positioned contractor, Phillips & Jordan, a debris management company based in western North Carolina. We put out an RFP two years ago, got bids and structured a contract based on that. Basically, the contract says that if we have an event, the contractor guarantees they will be here within 24 hours of us giving him a phone call. They have to roll in with a certain number of forces and start removing debris at a certain rate over a certain number of days.”

Contract crews work 12 hour days, 6 days per week removing the cut and shove material because it is not safe to cut and load at night. “For the first 70 hours FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) will pay us 100 percent for the cut and shove operation and we work around the clock. After that the only way we get a 100 percent recoup of our funds is if we do it by contract. During the first 70 hours if my guys go out and do the pickup, FEMA won’t reimburse me 100 percent, whereas if Phillips & Jordan picks up the material we get 100 percent reimbursement from FEMA,” McGee explained.

Raleigh uses a temporary, permitted dumpsite to receive vegetative debris. There the debris is ground up and shipped out to be further processed into bagged mulch, or sent to local co-generation plants to make electricity.

The most destructive tornado of the year struck Joplin on May 22. The EF-5 rated tornado with wind speeds exceeding 200 mph tore through the city of 50,000 to become among the deadliest in the nation’s history.

Recently, two more names were added to the list bringing the death toll to 153. About one-third of the city was either severely damaged or completely destroyed. News estimates say that at least 75 percent of the city has been damaged to some extent.

David Bryan, spokesman for United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7 described the aftermath from the Joplin mobile command center, “With the volume of materials that we are going to have to deal with from this particular event, there’s been quite a bit of interest. We are talking about a tornado path of 8 to 10 miles of almost a half mile across of just absolute destruction.”

EPA Region 7 personnel, including project coordinators, technical experts and other support personnel are on site and involved in several disaster response efforts in the Joplin area being coordinated by FEMA.

EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recently began tornado debris collections. All construction and demolition debris (C&D) and vegetative material being removed by USACE contractors is being kept separate from household hazardous waste, white goods and electronic equipment, which are being handled by the EPA.

Due to Joplin’s proximity to southeast Kansas landfills, they are the preferred sites over ones in Missouri to handle the vegetative and C&D debris. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) estimates that landfills in Cherokee and Crawford counties will receive between two to three million cubic yards of C&D waste from Joplin. KDHE is working with the Army Corps and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to ensure proper disposal of C&D waste, which includes wood, insulation, electrical wiring, rebar, concrete and bricks. Vegetative waste is being managed at a site in Missouri where chipping is being used and material recycled.

USACE intends to haul several hundreds of loads of debris per day to Kansas landfills with expectations of completing most debris removal and disposal by mid-August. To ensure safe disposal of C&D waste, KDHE’s Bureau of Waste Management is monitoring landfill operations. Landfills receiving C&D waste are following enhanced waste screening procedures to ensure that unauthorized waste is not disposed.

“The collaboration by state agencies, local government officials, the Army Corps and landfill owners has yielded creative solutions to help maximize the use of Kansas resources in helping the cleanup efforts in Joplin,” said Bill Bider, KDHE’s director of waste.

Bryan reported on the EPA cleanup effort, “We are not doing construction debris or vegetative matter, that’s the Army Corps. One of the normal disaster responses for EPA is handling household hazardous wastes, white goods and electronics.”

“When we have fertilizers, pesticides and things like that, we turn those over to a company that handles those types of hazardous materials for disposal. These are regulated materials so there are certain ways they have to be handled. We use certified contractors who take those materials. For any types of oils, gasoline and inflammable liquids we actually supply to bulk handlers who sell that as waste oil or other properties that can be used for their BTU effect. There are probably a half dozen more ways that that we are tracking hazardous waste trying to make sure that things are either recycled, remanufactured or reused.”

“With most of the appliances we get, we work with a company that handles these goods. When we come into a situation like Joplin we find a company that does remanufacturing and will take this on. EPA contractors remove oils, refrigerants and the like and we do what we can to make sure they are reused. Remanufacturers will also take damaged refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves and take them completely apart for the copper and other metals.”

“For the electronic goods we make sure they are recycled with the rules associated for computers and TVs and things like that. We want to make sure that we have a certified contractor that is either going to remanufacture, or dispose in the proper way.” MRC Recycling, a Missouri state certified recycling contractor picked up the first two truckloads of electronic goods on June 13 for delivery to their processing plant in Park Hills, Missouri.

“In most cases it’s a benefit because contractors will take materials off our hands, sometimes for freight charges; sometimes they come and get it. So there’s a trade-off. They get the materials and we get proper disposal. It’s a give and take system involving different aspects of what we recover and what we recycle. We want to make sure that everything we get has been properly reused, recycled or remanufactured. We‘ve had good cooperation from our contractors,” Bryan concluded.

These are the type of recycling jobs that no one expected nor wanted, but government agencies, volunteer groups and private recyclers are working hard to clean up these cities in an environmentally responsible way.