Tens of thousands of hurricane-ravaged houses will be gutted or bulldozed when the floodwaters in Texas eventually recede and cleanup begins. Where all of that garbage ends up is a looming question, with potential long-term environmental consequences.
While state officials say it is still too early to determine how much debris will remain, they know that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city of New Orleans—which is one-sixth the size of Houston—had to dispose of 55 million cubic yards of waste, enough to fill the Superdome 40 times over. Simple math indicates that the size and scope of the Houston cleanup will be much greater, raising questions about whether area landfills are equipped to sort and dispose of that much garbage.
In the aftermath of a hurricane, getting people safely back into their homes is the first priority. In an effort to speed that process, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has waived certain environmental regulations, including several pertaining to the disposal of solid waste.
According to the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, all debris headed to landfills first must be sorted into five categories: woody debris; construction and demolition debris; “white goods,” such as refrigerators, air conditioners, and water heaters; household hazardous waste; and electronic waste.
Many environmentalists worry that with thousands of truckloads of debris coming in such a rapid succession, sorting won’t actually happen to the extent it should.
“We’re about to put hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic materials into landfills,” Andrew Dobbs, program director with the Texas Campaign for the Environment, told Bloomberg BNA. “Based on what we’ve seen from other recent floods in Texas, they probably aren’t going to segregate out toxic materials, it’s just going to end up in the landfill.”
Dobbs said he and other environmentalists are not wagging their fingers at people who want the cleanup to go as quickly as possible. Instead, he says Houston should use this as an opportunity to plan for the next disaster, and properly prioritize hazardous waste cleanup.
The trash and debris Harvey will leave behind is likely to take years to clean up, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If disasters such as Harvey become more frequent, as climate scientists say they will, landfills will become increasingly important to the recovery process.
In the case of Houston, a lack of space in landfills might not be the immediate concern. The Houston-Galveston region has 27 landfills, with a total of 34 years of capacity under normal disposal rates, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
“As things dry out, most cities and counties do have disaster debris management programs in place,” Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology at the National Waste and Recycling Association, told Bloomberg BNA.
With the full cleanup likely to take a long time, the impact to neighborhoods could be minimized by having the material removed and managed at temporary locations, like the ones used in the aftermath of Katrina, Germain said.
Construction and demolition (C and D) landfills, so-called “sticks and bricks” sites, for example, could be used to take on extra capacity that might otherwise end up in municipal solid waste landfills.
“For instance, there will be lots of cars,” Germain said. “Cars don’t normally go to landfills, but they could be stored and processed at one off-site location.
Typically, the liner requirements for C and D landfills are not as robust to protect groundwater and each state regulates what materials those landfills can accept.
In Texas, Germain said, small amounts of household hazardous waste such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and batteries are permitted to go into the regular municipal solid waste landfill. More hazardous materials like propane tanks, pesticide containers, and household cleaners will need to be separated and taken to special disposal sites.
One of the factors contributing to the lengthy cleanup process after Katrina was the unprecedented scale of the operation and the complexity of the waste stream. Lessons learned from that cleanup have become integral to other disaster recovery plans.
“We authorized 409 sites for debris management—things like storage, grinding up waste to reduce volume,” Chuck Carr Brown, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, told Bloomberg BNA. Brown was the assistant secretary during Hurricane Katrina and said he has shared his post-disaster playbook with his counterparts in Texas
His main piece of advice for Texas was to distribute the waste and debris segregation protocols as quickly as possible.
“Once the water recedes, the first thing you’ll have is folks will go back home and start gutting houses—sheet rock, carpet, refrigerator, it will all go out to the curb,” he said.
Brown told Bloomberg BNA that the list of materials that could be dumped in landfills was expanded in the aftermath of Katrina, but residents have not been exposed to a greater risk of point-source pollution.
“We didn’t relax environmental” regulations, Brown said. “However, we did use a common sense approach to questions like, ‘How can we create additional landfill space?’”
Louisiana extended the kinds of materials that could be taken to C and D landfills to include things like carpet and furniture, which frequently include chemicals and plastics, Brown said.
Synthetic carpets biodegrade very slowly and are a known contributor to methane emissions. They can leach dangerous chemicals into the water supply, according to the anti-incineration group GAIA.
Brown said that waste collected during the Katrina cleanup is still being tested and has not been a problem. “We’re 12 years out and not one environmental issue,” he said.
He also said New Orleans was able to recycle 39 percent of the debris the city collected.
“If the people in Houston are able to do that, they’ll be fine.”
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