It was certainly the news story of the year, temporarily displacing the war in Iraq from newspaper front pages and generating saturation coverage from 24-hour cable news networks like CNN. Naturally, the humanitarian tragedy — the emergency response and evacuations — received the most attention, especially in the immediate aftermath. Attention has since turned to what will surely be one of the most massive cleanups in U.S. history.
That’s where the waste management industry will play a significant role. But even during the emergency response phase, many waste management companies — including some of the larger ones with Canadian subsidiaries — did what they could to help.
Employees and customers of Waste Management Inc. in the affected Gulf Coast area were hit hard. WM services all of New Orleans and owns the landfill in the area. The company set up an emergency support fund and other relief efforts to help its employees and other victims. Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. made a special mention of the company for its efforts at a news conference. The company is still assessing damage to its landfill, districts and equipment, and taking steps to restore and repair damage.
Allied Waste also created an employee relief fund with a $1.1 million initial commitment, including a $100,000 pledge by CEO John Zillmer. The company deployed corporate and field leaders to aid in operational cleanup efforts and sent roll-off trucks and more than 800 containers to the Gulf Coast.
BFI Canada Income Fund’s Anne MacMicken reported that, thankfully, no employees were directly impacted by the Hurricane Katrina at the company’s U.S. IESI subsidiary. IESI and BFI Canada announced that they would match individual contributions from their employees to the Red Cross up to $50,000. IESI was in a unique position to assist the State of Louisiana to utilize its assets (which did not suffer any significant storm damage). IESI has had a long-standing relationship with the state and is currently working with all levels of government to develop solutions for the massive clean-up effort.
Other companies also pitched in. Onyx North America established a fund to accept financial contributions for employees and match every dollar raised. Among many other actions, the company’s industrial services and special services divisions applied their core business competencies in the deployment of 45 employees to Louisiana for disaster cleanup. The employees were to have an active presence in the “tent cities.” The company assisted in everything from underwater help to keep waster pumps operating to the provision of five 53-foot mobile laundry services (flat bed trucks equipped with washers and dryers).
The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) offered a Disaster Debris Management Technical Session at WASTECON 2005 in Austin, Texas. The session was free to state and local emergency personnel. The 75-minute session consisted of three presentations, each given by a solid waste professional who has dealt first-hand with storm debris management. SWANA also developed a special online hurricane debris report. The report outlines methods and technologies for management and removal of waste created by hurricanes. This report was compiled by the SWANA Applied Research Foundation based on a request from Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that asked for recommendations on the management of various solid waste streams generated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The SWANA report includes information covering household hazardous waste (HHW), school laboratory materials, automobile-related wastes (tires, fluids, mercury switches, lead acid batteries, contaminated gasoline etc.), propane tanks, white goods, and electronic wastes. (The report is posted atwww.swana.org)
Beyond the humanitarian crisis the initial damage to some equipment and landfill assets, analysts believe the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and, to a lesser extent Rita, represent a business opportunity for waste services companies. When the cleanup begins in the affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, waste haulers are likely to see a significant spike in waste at landfills, both from debris and new construction. (The area damaged by the storm is estimated to be approximately the size of Great Britain.)
A Reuters report stated that analysts believe environmental services companies will make money initially by being contracted for their expertise in water treatment and chemical hazards in flood-ravaged areas. Over the longer term, waste recycling and disposal firms will benefit from increased volumes at their facilities. Cleanup in Florida from four hurricanes added a two to three percent increase in disposal volumes at many waste companies last year. Waste Management Inc. alone saw approximately $100 million in hurricane-related revenue in 2004.
Early reports appear to indicate this windfall is underway. Within just three weeks of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, emergency workers had removed almost 2.3 million cubic metres of debris — enough to fill 30 American football fields 15 metres high. The total included 1.4 million cubic metres of tree limbs, lumber, upturned metals, trash and other bulk left behind in Mississippi. By the time all the debris is cleared, federal and state officials expect the total to reach 60 million cubic metres, mainly from Louisiana. The amount has been calculated to equal 200 times the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza. Federal emergency officials reported early on that debris from the
contents of thousands of homes that were destroyed or ruined was overwhelming landfills and impromptu staging areas. Non-stop burning of material was required to reduce some of the waste volumes. The initial cleanup is expected to take until the end of next spring; total restoration of the most damaged areas will take years.
A more sinister dimension to the damage is the potential environmental impact of pollution from flooded cars, trucks, service stations, dry cleaners, manufacturers, oil and gas facilities, and other industrial sources. Also, this magazine broke the potentially important story of New Orleans’ submerged historic landfills, including the Agriculture Street Landfill — a U.S. EPA Superfund Site that is also on the National Priorities List. This landfill has been the site of decades-long protests as economically disadvantaged residents in housing that was built atop a developed portion of the 95-acre site complained about mysterious illnesses and asked to be relocated. This story was featured in our special online supplement and in related news items posted at www.solidwastemag.com Editor Guy Crittenden was interviewed about this story by various media, including a morning radio program broadcast on National Public Radio in the United States to more than 600,000 listeners. An ongoing concern is the pumping of untreated contaminated water from the relatively contained “basin” of New Orleans and its levees into Lake Pontchartrain, potentially polluting a larger area of the Gulf Coast.
Note:Readers interested in donating to the ongoing relief effort may do so by contributing to the American Red Cross, www.RedCross.orgor 800-435-7669 (800-HELP NOW) and the Salvation Army. These organizations have expressed a preference for cash donations rather than goods. A complete listing of relief organizations is available at the Federal Emergency Management Agency website:www.fema.gov