Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left a hell of a mess—millions of tons of debris, much of it toxic. Houston officials said this week it will cost at least $200 million to dispose of 8 million cubic yards of storm debris. More than 100,000 homes in Houston are damaged. Irma caused billions of dollars of damage across the Caribbean and southeastern United States.
Wood, plaster, drywall, metal, oil, electronics—all of it waterlogged. Put it into unlined landfills and it can contaminate groundwater. The gypsum in drywall decomposes into hydrogen sulfide gas. And it might all get thrown away together anyway.
“No one is interested in separating garbage after a hurricane,” says Elena Craft, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin. “But there are real threats that exist from this process.”
Craft and other environmental advocates met with representatives of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week to talk about debris disposal. “It sounded like [the state] was relying on landfill operators to be vigilant,” Craft says. “The state does not do the best job of active surveillance. It’s nice to think that everyone is doing the right thing, but sometimes they don’t.”
Case in point: Versailles, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana state environmental officials were so overwhelmed with construction debris that they opened up a new landfill next to the low-income Vietnamese community of Versailles. The dumping continued despite protests, and years later local residents found medical waste, oil cans, and electronics—stuff that was supposed to be sent to more protective sites. Chronicled in a PBS documentary, the Versailles landfill didn’t have a synthetic liner underneath or water-monitoring equipment.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA was working on a plan to incorporate climate change scenarios into planning for disposal of toxic material and protecting Superfund sites from big storms. “Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may affect EPA’s capacity to manage debris and respond to emergencies,” the report stated. And last year, the Office of the Inspector General released a report that EPA officials didn’t have a good idea of what state officials were doing to prepare for post-disaster waste disposal.
A new post-hurricane analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows 650 energy and industrial facilities in Texas flooded by Harvey, where toxic runoff could pose a risk to local residents.
What happens now in Florida and Texas will depend on the decisions that state officials make in the coming weeks. “What we saw during Hurricane Katrina was a lot of waivers issued by EPA and activity that was technically illegal,” says Adam Babich, professor of environmental law at Tulane University. The waivers are a legal way to allow state agencies to temporarily violate federal law without facing enforcement by the EPA.
Local officials could mix different kinds of waste without fear of prosecution for violating federal hazardous waste laws. That sometimes leads to long-term risk to nearby communities, Babich says. “Sometimes you have to do it in the face of an emergency,” he says. “Other times you are tying to do it faster than you would otherwise, or to save money. Where those lines are drawn is something we can debate.”
In Florida, state emergency officials are still working to restore power and other basic services to millions of people hit by the storm. As yet Florida officials haven't asked for a statewide waiver to allow solid waste facilities to accept waste categories outside of their permit, but they will consider waivers on a case by case basis, according to Sarah Shellabarger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee.
Florida is asking residents to report storm debris to a graphic web portal that went up Friday showing reports from around the state. Marianna Huntley of Ormond Beach reported a "wrecked boat sitting upside down next to my dock leaking oil and fluids into the river" while other people reported smashed wooden piers, junked jet skis and "trees 60 to 80 feet long and as big around as car tires."
WIRED asked the EPA press office whether the agency plans to grant waivers to Texas and Florida on dumping rules, whether it has state debris response plans, and whether the agency is incorporating climate change into disaster preparedness. As of Friday afternoon, the agency had not responded.