Gulf cleanup overwhelms waste companies
by Brian R. Hook
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
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
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
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
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.