Monday, May 2, 2011

Apple #521: Where Does the Debris Go?

[Note from the Apple Lady: I was in the middle of working on this entry when I got the news about Osama Bin Laden.  I realize you're probably not all that interested in the topic of this entry at the moment, but rather than switch horses to a subject having to do with war, I decided to stick with this.  At the very least, I wanted to finish what I started.]

I have had a request!  Daily Apple reader Leopold pointed out that, in the wake of all these storms and hurricanes and tornadoes, there is rubble all over the place.  That all has to get cleaned up, of course.  But, he wanted to know, where does the rubble go?

The destruction surrounding those severe storms is certainly not a happy topic so that might seem to make it not suitable for the Daily Apple, but rubble-removal is the beginning of rebuilding.  Plus, I suspect that the people who do the rubble-hauling largely go unseen.  So this will shine a light on these essential services that most of us rarely think about.

  • The short answer to where does the rubble go (the term the officials use is "debris") is to the landfill.

A landfill, it turns out, isn't just a great big hole in the ground, but it's a pretty sophisticated combination of engineering and chemistry.
(Diagram from Runco Environmental)

  • But of course the more complete answer to Leopold's question is more complicated than that.

  • Exactly where the debris goes depends on what kind it is, whether it's vegetable, construction, or hazardous material.
  • The first thing a city or county or municipality does is to take care of any hazardous situations.  While this may include downed power lines, the city may have to remove downed trees or branches in order to get to the power lines.  So the way they describe this step is to say that they clear roadways to allow vehicles to access any potentially hazardous areas.

This is exactly the kind of hazardous situation that gets taken care of first: a downed tree blocking a street and leaning on a power line to boot. This is after a winter storm in Santa Barbara, Florida, in January 2010.
(Photo by Victor Maccharoli from the Daily Sound)

  • Most of the time what they're clearing away in this first step is vegetative.  Because trees and branches and stumps are bulky and weirdly-shaped, taking them straight to the landfill is strongly discouraged.  So the vegetation might get turned into wood chips first, or it may be taken somewhere for recycling, if it's possible to recycle any of that wood.
  • Since the vegetative stuff has to get "reduced" before it's taken to the landfill, it's carefully collected separately from any construction material.
  • In most cases, it is vegetative debris that people are dealing with after a storm.  But if a storm is especially severe, there may be construction debris to remove. As with the vegetative stuff, the construction debris gets sorted and processed, with the goal of recycling any of the materials if at all possible, and of reducing the bulk of the stuff.
  • Broken concrete has to be divided into two types: that with metal bars in it and that without.  Concrete without metal bars is considered "clean" and can be re-used.  It can be covered up with uncontaminated soil and used as fill material in land that's going to be built up (think of those hills that get created out of nowhere when they build new roads or that go around new buildings).  Broken chunks of "clean" concrete can also be re-used as erosion control barriers.

This broken concrete has metal rods in it, which means it isn't considered "clean" or re-usable, so that's probably why it's been piled up together. This is in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola, Florida, in 2005.
(Photo by Leif Skoogfors from FEMA)

  • Bricks, rocks, stones, asphalt, and soil can usually be re-used for all sorts of building and engineering purposes, provided it hasn't been contaminated by, say, sewage or chemical spills.
  • The construction material that can be re-used gets separated out.  Everything else goes to the landfill.
  • Then there's the hazardous stuff.  This includes construction material (usually roofing) with asbestos in it, lead pipes, batteries, animal carcasses, infectious waste (think of what might happen if a hospital got hit by a tornado), toxic chemicals that might have been spilled, and soil that's been contaminated.  This stuff needs to get handled by waste disposal professionals who are specially certified to handle these types of materials.  The materials have to be contained and disposed of according to very specific guidelines that are tailored to each type of material.
  • Included in the hazardous category are some household products.  Appliances, including refrigerators, air conditioners, ovens, washing machines, heat pumps, etc., all referred to as "white goods," may contain hazardous chemicals -- substances like refrigerants, freon, oil, or possibly even mercury.  Those chemicals have to be removed from the appliances before they are added to the landfill.
  • Electronics like computers and cell phones and TVs also fall into the hazardous household goods category.
  • Vehicles may also have to be disposed of.  In the case of cars or trucks, those are typically taken to a junkyard. Boats may be taken to a similar kind of junkyard, but for navigational vessels.  Vehicles usually don't wind up in the landfill because of the oil, gasoline, rubber tires, and the fact that they're pretty big and bulky.

Somebody's going to have to get that mini-van off the top of that other car and the huge tree branch.  That's got to be a specialty job.
(Photo of tornado damage near Beaver Creek, North Carolina from our amazing planet)

  • After the city clears the roadways, there may be additional stuff to deal with.  If the storm damage is especially widespread in a city, the city might institute a kind of disposal grace period, so to speak. For a small window of time, they'll notify homeowners that collection trucks will circulate among the especially hard-hit streets and pick up any vegetative stuff that's been brought to the curb, at no charge to the residents.  The stuff is not to spill out into the roadway and block traffic, and it has to be carefully separated from any construction or building material.

Vegetation piled along a roadside, waiting for city pick-up. This stuff is what fell down in one guy's yard during Tropical Storm Fay in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2008.
(Photo from Rabid Fun)

  • Alternatively, a city may post notices that residents can bring their debris to the landfills free of charge.  In some cases, they may direct people to bring their debris to a separate way-station instead.  Once at the way-station, they'll still direct people to separate their vegetative stuff from the construction stuff.  People working at the way-stations will do some additional sorting and processing at the site before sending it off to be re-used or to the landfill.
  • Where the stuff gets taken may also depend on who's paying for the clean-up.  Initially, the city or municipality would be in charge of the clean-up, but it may become apparent that the area should be declared a federal disaster area.  
  • When that happens, FEMA gets involved.  They don't necessarily take over the clean-up process, but they may advise local officials about how to handle the sheer volume of stuff.  They may decide that the city needs to set up a way-station and they may advise the city on where to set one up.  
  • FEMA officials will also monitor the debris-removal activities to assess what kinds of materials are being removed, and by whom, and using what procedures.  The disposal costs for which they reimburse are determined by these sorts of details, so FEMA keeps an eye on it.

  • The first people to get involved are the city's waste collection services.  Good old trash trucks.

It was hard to find a picture of the guys who pick up the trash.  Lots of photos of the trucks, not so many of the people themselves.  These guys work for New Orleans' downtown trash collection service, SDT.
(Photo by Eliot Kamenitz at The Times Picayune)

  • After larger storms, however, it may be obvious that the city doesn't have enough trucks, or the right kind of equipment like enormo-stump-grinders, or the right kind of expertise such as hazardous material handling.  That's when they call in the contractors.

There's no way a regular city trash truck or some guy with a chainsaw and a truck could handle this enormous tree, felled during the Raleigh, North Carolina tornado.  Time to call the special tree- and stump-grinder guys.
(Photo from active rain)

  • Sometimes the contractors are simply guys with more trucks.  But often the contractors are businesses who have the equipment and expertise to handle specific materials.  There are contractors who specialize in stump-grinding, contractors who specialize in branch and tree removal, contractors who deal with refrigerant removal, who break up concrete, who collect and clean contaminated soil or mud, who handle asbestos, who clean up toxic chemical spills, etc., etc.

These guys work for VanBooven Tree Care. They're certified arborists and experts in tree pruning and removal. Notice the extra-long chainsaw blade, the special hard hats, and the protective gloves.  They were one company hired to help Kansas City clean up after a storm in 2010. By the way, the majority of injuries related to storm damage happen after the storm, when Average Joes get out there with their chainsaws and try to saw up trees by themselves.
(Photo from VanBooven Tree)

The Bobcat with the claw on it, being used here to pick up storm debris, and the huge Dumpster-like truck are owned by a contractor that specializes in storm debris removal. The stuff they're collecting is debris from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
(Photo from VCM Ventures, Ltd.)

These guys are experts in asbestos removal. They're all suited up as federal regulations require. The thing they're throwing out is a piece of ceiling tile.
(Photo from Asbestos Jobs Info)

  • All this debris- removal costs big bucks.  Providence, Rhode Island estimated that dealing with the tree damage alone after a storm that struck six nearby cities would cost an estimated $54 million.
  • Days after the tornado hit Raleigh, North Carolina, the city put 40 trucks to work collecting vegetative waste left along the roadsides as part of that first-stage debris removal. The city thinks that tree & branch removal alone will cost $1 million, but that amount could easily go higher.  The city expects it to take another six weeks for a private contractor to haul away some 150,000 cubic yards of debris. They didn't offer an estimate for what that might cost.
  • St. Louis spent $10,000 on Dumpsters and $30,000 on a huge tree grinder. One city administrator estimated that cleaning up the debris on one particular street alone would cost an estimated $3 million.  That $3 million is significant because it represents one threshold of damage that a county must reach in order to qualify for FEMA reimbursement.
  • If FEMA gets involved, they will reimburse local governments for expenses related to the removal of some types of materials, but not all types. Generally speaking, they reimburse for the removal of material that's on public property but not private, they don't reimburse for general construction material removal because most insurance policies cover that, and they'll reimburse for the removal of only some types of hazardous material, provided it's dealt with according to regulations.
  • Typically, the federal government is estimated to cover about 75% of storm clean-up expenses.
It always amazes me how destruction can happen so fast, in a matter of minutes or even seconds, but recovery and rebuilding takes so much longer -- years longer, sometimes -- and with so much effort.  Here's to all the people who are helping others dig out and rebuild.

Laura Camper, Removal of post-storm debris poses challenges, The Anniston Star, April 30, 2011
State Helps with Grove Tornado Debris Cleanup, Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, May 1, 2011
Record tornado outbreak left massive cleanup job, The Miami News-Herald, April 23, 2011
Reece Rutland, Reports: 285 homes completely destroyed, Cleveland Daily Banner, April 30, 2011
Survey Shows Clean Up Could Cost Cities Millions, Providence Business News, April 28, 2011
Raleigh makes plans for storm cleanup, Raleigh News-Observer, April 18, 2011
NCDOT to help with debris removal, Jacksonville Daily News, April 21, 2011
Cities cleaning up from the storm are worried about the bottom line, St. Louis Today, April 28, 2011
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Construction and Demolition Debris
FEMA, Debris Management and Debris Management Guide
Brookhaven National Laboratory, Pollution Prevention


  1. Mr. Humbly Request5/02/2011 11:06 PM

    Thank you for doing an apple on this rather than the royal wedding! The day of the wedding (day after storms round 2), my daughter and I did a survey of online newspaper headliners. The New York Times was the only one who figured the storms in the South deserved top billing over the royal wedding. The Washington Post gets honorable mention for putting the two side-by-side on their site. Everyone else...

    And now the Apple Lady joins the elite ranks. Well done!

  2. Thank you for writing this instead of changing it to something about Bin Laden. I read every word of this article...and was very curious to see where debris goes. I appreciate it and everyone who helps clean up the debris.


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