Where Do They Put All That Toxic Hurricane Debris?

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…

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