November 2005

Gulf cleanup overwhelms waste companies
by Brian R. Hook E-mail the author

In addition to a path of death and destruction, this year’s hurricane season left behind tons of waste along the Gulf Coast. Waste-management providers are now working with municipality and other government officials to haul away all the debris.

Waste Management Inc. incurred some minor damage from Hurricane Katrina. But Lynn Brown, spokesperson for the Houston-based publicly-held firm, said Waste Management had a comprehensive disaster plan that helped the company to secure most of its critical assets.

Brown said Katrina left around 60 vehicles in New Orleans inaccessible after the levees protecting the city broke, but the equipment stayed dry. She said soon after the hurricane passed, operations were up and running at some level throughout the whole region, with the exception of some of the hardest hit sections of New Orleans.

In Louisiana and Mississippi the company has around 200 municipal contracts. It also owns eight landfills and two hazardous-waste facilities in the region. Brown said the landfills and hazardous-waste facilities escaped damage. Waste Management is now in the process of working with government officials to decide the next steps.

Brown said Katrina presented a unique situation. She said while most hurricanes cause wind damage, the extensive flooding in New Orleans – which at one point covered at least 80 percent of the city – was a whole different problem.

“Wherever we can get in we will help them out however we can,” Brown said. She said Waste Management is also working to bring back the company’s displaced employees as quickly as possible. Plus, the company is looking to hire new people in Louisiana to help the company get back up to speed in New Orleans.

Allied Waste Industries Inc. is also working with authorities across the impacted region to re-establish service. The publicly held company, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, reported that it sent more than 60 additional trucks as well as more than 1,600 large disposal containers to the Gulf Coast. It also provided almost 200 apartments for employees who are not able to return home.

Chaz Miller, director of recycling for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, said there is a whole slew of issues for both waste-management providers and municipalities to address soon after a natural disaster. The trade association, based in Washington D.C., represents for-profit waste-management providers across the country.

First is the immediate cleanup, Miller said. “Because everything got all jumbled together, a lot of the stuff is going to be contaminated. You don’t have clean separation after a storm of this magnitude,” Miller said. Then it is time to fix and repair buildings. He said many of the damaged buildings would need to be torn down. But Miller indicated there might be some salvage options available with some of the damaged structures.

To take care of some of these immediate needs after hurricanes strike, most local governments in hurricane prone areas have contracts with emergency response contractors, according to John Skinner, executive director and chief executive officer of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Skinner said these contractors would recycle as much as possible. For example, if they could separate out the wood, it could be ground and used as mulch. He said metals are easily pulled out. Damaged concrete and asphalt could be reused as road base. “Then you are going to get into a lot of miscellaneous materials, which there are recycling markets for, but it is very difficult to separate out from the waste,” he said. The rest would end up in a landfill. “There are limitations on what can be recycled,” Skinner said.

Skinner said he has seen estimates that put the total waste amount following the year’s hurricanes at 200 million cubic yards of material, which would fill 200 football fields 50 feet high. Skinner said hurricanes often have both a positive and negative impact on the bottom-line at waste-management companies.

One person that has lived through this kind of scenario before is Pete Spatara, assistant director of public utilities in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was on the frontlines last year after both Hurricane Jeanne and Francis pounded his city.

Spatara said West Palm Beach started to recycle the debris after the first storm hit. But after the second storm hit, the volume was so large the city had to haul the debris to a facility 50 miles away. He estimated that West Palm Beach had 600 thousand cubic yards of brush and tree debris after the hurricanes. To avoid having to haul away the debris in the future, he said West Palm Beach has put the debris in its waste contract.

“After our last storms, we are really looking to try and be prepared for an incident of any nature, be it flooding, winds or manmade,” Spatara said.

His advice for any municipality: “You want to have as much under contract as you can,” he said. “Watch who you get on contract and make sure that they are not in the same storm path that you are going to fall into.”

Another word of advice for any disaster response planners: “Be scared. You need to be afraid and you need to plan for the worst possible scenario,” Spatara said. “Figure that you have no vehicles and you have no people. You have no communication and no electricity. Fear will keep you inline,” and will also help communities prepare.

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