Open Waste Burning
A BURNING DEBATE
Posted on Thu, Oct. 20, 2005
By MIKE KELLER
Mississippi Sun Herrald
With an estimated 50 million cubic yards of debris, something has to be
done, and some want it to vanish into thin air
HARRISON COUNTY Off County Farm Road, in central Harrison County, the fiery red
Mississippi clay reaches a temperature that matches its color.
"The smoke was burning south this morning, but it seems to be going
straight up right now," said Robert Saucier, an employee of the county's
Saucier kept a watchful eye on the white ash piles that used to be the
fallen trees of South Mississippi.
It was early autumn, but the cool morning breeze had been burnt off by a
combination of a lingering summer sun and the stacked, smoldering wood
burning at around 1,000 degrees.
A need for speedy disposal of the debris meant a cursory separation of
material that could be burnt, like tree limbs, from that which should not
be, like a mattress or a child's bicycle, smoking and soot-colored at the
top of one of the pyres.
South Mississippi has an overabundance of storm debris, with some
estimates running as high as 50 million cubic yards of it. One of the
solutions proffered by disaster response officials involves making the
problem disappear into thin air.
The County Farm Road site alone burned more than 84,000 cubic yards of
mainly vegetation in just over 24 hours, according to Terry Broadus,
Harrison County's road manager.
Modern science, though, points to the fact that nothing ever disappears
into thin air, especially when it is coming from an open debris burning
area. If a person could capture all of the smoke and ash, it would weigh
the same as the original material, plus the oxygen it combined with when
According to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality maps dated
Oct. 4, Harrison County has 14 approved burn sites while Hancock County
has one. Jackson County has no approved sites.
Some of the sites, like the one off County Farm Road, are operated by the
county, while others are run by county and federal contractors.
Several government agencies warn residents living near the burning sites
and those working to clear and burn debris about the dangers.
A Centers for Disease Control statement advises that from environmental
and public health standpoints, burning is not considered acceptable
because of the potential health problems it causes, safety concerns and
the negative effect on air quality.
"However, in disaster situations with large amounts of debris, burning
may be allowed," the statement says. The CDC statement warns about smoke,
heat and fire hazards around burning debris.
Possibly toxic chemicals in the smoke can cause eye, nose, throat and
lung irritation. It also can aggravate chronic lung and heart diseases.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, recommends that burn
sites be placed at least 1,000 feet from homes and businesses, individual
piles should be no bigger than 45 square feet and they should be at least
1,000 feet from the next pile.
Some people are beginning to complain to local authorities about the
smoke coming from the burning sites.
George Mixon, Harrison County's fire marshal, said that his office is
fielding numerous calls from people who live around the sites because of
the odor of the smoke. He went out to a few of the sites to investigate.
"I don't get it," he said. "By order of the governor, there is a burn ban
in effect for the six coastal counties. But they have a permit to burn.
We went out there and we were told, 'We have a permit from DEQ to burn.'
I turned my little firetruck around and went back home."
The EPA, which is in charge of monitoring the impact of the burning sites
on public health, has promised to make local air pollution test results
public sometime this week.
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DEQ declares emergency, seeks sites to dump debris
By MIKE DUNNE
Advocate staff writer
Baton Rouge, LA
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is looking for places
to dispose of the millions of tons of debris and wreckage left behind by
The agency has declared an emergency and can thus waive some of its
normal rules and regulations but will try to meet the spirit of
environmental regulation as it identifies waste sites, said Chuck Brown,
DEQ assistant secretary for environmental services.
Tons of tree waste, demolished houses, soaked furniture and carpet,
destroyed appliances and other trash left behind by the storm's
destruction must be cleared.
An Environmental Protection Agency special environmental assessment task
force estimates 30 million tons or more of debris will have to be
disposed of in the coming months and years.
Officials estimate the debris just from Orleans Parish will total 12
million tons. Some of the state's largest landfills process only about 1
million tons of waste a year, Brown said.
By comparison, the debris left behind in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks on New York City added up to just 1.5 million tons, he said.
While the existing landfills permitted by the state -- from woody waste
to hazardous chemical sites -- have the capacity to take in all the
debris left behind, the ability to process it in those few sites would
hamper the disposal effort, Brown said.
"This is an emergency situation," Brown said. "We are identifying sites
that maybe we would not normally use."
DEQ has identified about 90 sites it is considering for burning and
chipping waste and for construction and demolition waste.
Officials estimate 1 million "white goods," or refrigerators, freezers,
washers, driers and other appliances (traditionally white in color) will
be tossed out or left behind, Brown said.
Officials are asking residents to clean refrigerators and freezers before
putting them out for disposal. In many cases, power was knocked out as
the storm arrived and the contents of refrigerators and freezers spoiled.
Officials in Jefferson Parish, for example, asked people to clean out
their refrigerators and freezers and bury the contents in their yards.
Many residents just duct-taped flooded refrigerators closed and put them
on the curb, Brown said.
"Folks returned to their houses -- put it outside and called it a day. I
don't blame them. It just adds another step" for the cleanup process,
Brown said. The state will contract with a company to collect those white
goods still filled with rotting food, dispose of the contents, and clean
out the appliances to a point they can be recycled, he said.
The easiest waste to handle will be "green waste," or the wood and limbs
of trees and other shrubbery that were knocked down by Katrina's winds.
In some cases, DEQ is planning to identify and issue permits for sites
where that waste could be burned. Some of it also may be recycled -- as
is now being done in hard-hit Washington Parish, where downed trees are
being chipped and ground up for boiler fuel at a paper mill, Brown said.
"At these burn sites, we will reuse the ash. It could be placed in the
marsh to enhance the marsh. We don't expect to have anything abnormal in
the ash," he said. "It would be like what's in your fireplace."
The burn sites will have to be at least 1,000 feet from a residence and
will use an air-curtain destructor, a device that shoots a "hot sheet of
air over the fire and eliminates particulate matter and smoke," Brown said.
Construction and demolition waste, which technically doesn't include
hazardous substances, normally will not include carpet or furniture, but
the emergency rules will allow those two items, Brown said.
Construction and demolition sites must have liners and other safety
features because it is assumed some toxic materials will be mixed in with
the old boards, shingles, siding and other construction materials, he said.
Another option being considered is to dispose of construction and
demolition waste by piling it atop now-closed solid waste landfills, and
then capping those sites with about two feet of clay, Brown said.
Those sites should already be equipped with liners and systems to collect
leachate and to monitor groundwater.
"At this point, we have not approved any. We are still looking at all the
options," Brown said.
Collections of household hazardous waste have already begun in St.
Tammany and Jefferson parishes and will be expanded to other parishes as
Such wastes include old paints, pesticides, cleaners, petroleum products
and propane tanks. Officials are asking people to separate such items
from their normal garbage and trash, Brown said. As collections occur,
the wastes will be disposed of in accordance with hazardous waste rules,
An estimated 350,000 vehicles were flooded and ruined by Hurricane
Katrina and must be disposed of or recycled. There are already three
staging areas in New Orleans for vehicles and boats. Some insurance
companies also have set up staging areas, Brown said.
As vehicles are disposed of, workers will collect switches that use
mercury, a toxic metal that can get into the environment and contaminate
fish. Brown said officials estimate 4,000 pounds of mercury from
switches. Gasoline and other petroleum fluids will be drained, gas tanks
removed and tires taken off for proper disposal, Brown said.
Vehicles also will be decontaminated -- sprayed with bleach -- before
final disposal, Brown said.
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