THE WASTE INDUSTRY prides itself on keeping America clean and healthy by properly disposing of and recycling discarded materials. But because of the close timing between the Sept. 11th attacks, anthrax incidents and terrorist activities in the Middle East and elsewhere, the industry now is playing an important role in keeping out other undesirables — to ensure homeland security.

Solid waste managers have become responsible for ensuring that their operations and employees are secure; for assisting federal, state and local governments in developing and implementing security plans; and if and when a bioterrorist incident occurs, assisting in cleanup efforts. But how this is physically accomplished is not always clear.

Best Laid Plans

Bioterrorism generally is defined as the deliberate release of microorganisms and viruses that cause disease or toxins for the explicit purpose of causing harm or death. Chemical weapons also are being evaluated in the same context using the same or similar terms.

As early as 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, developed regulations for transferring hazardous agents. Anyone who transfers “select agents” — CDC-listed viruses, bacteria and recombinant organisms and molecules (i.e., anthrax, small pox) — is required to register facilities; comply with the CDC's requirements for biosafety levels; and comply with the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) shipping requirements. But the CDC's rules were designed to monitor research laboratories, not waste disposal operations.

In 2001, as companies began preparing to register with the CDC to transport and dispose of anthrax-contaminated waste materials, a system was not in place to accept these registrations. At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., was not focused on designating waste materials as hazardous or medical waste as part of cleanup and restoration efforts. Because of the size and volume of waste materials, the agency also had to decide whether using available solid waste disposal facilities was viable.

Although there's no lack of good intentions to protect the public and environment, “waste disposal facilities just don't wake up one morning looking for select agent waste,” says Andrea Arredondo, owner of Earth Compliance Solutions, Chesapeake, Va., and former employee of American Waste Industries Inc., Norfolk, Va., one company that accepted anthrax-contaminated materials.

Developing Guidance

Representatives from federal and state agencies, as well as the industry, were far from comfortable in making long-term decisions about how to handle waste.

Congress attempted to correct this problem and enacted the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 to enhance “controls on dangerous biological agents and toxins,” and included provisions for food safety and agroterrorism. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 then created a new federal agency to realign many federal agencies' efforts to protect the nation.

With direction from these two laws, former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman established in January 2003 the National Homeland Security Research Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to review disposal options for waste generated in a terrorist situation, including solid, hazardous and medical waste transport, treatment and disposal options. The office also is evaluating the rules and overlapping responsibilities between federal and state agencies and emergency response organizations.

The EPA and leaders from the Washington, D.C.-based Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials; Integrated Solid Waste Association; and National Solid Wastes Management Association, plus several waste companies are helping to identify areas of concern, develop guidance and offer waste management options.

The guidance will initially focus on: (1) detection/sampling and analysis, (2) containment, (3) decontamination and (4) disposal.

Making Preparations

Among the first steps the EPA guidance may recommend following a bioterrorist attack is to determine the nature of the contaminants used, associated risk and potential population affected. This could indicate how waste should be handled. Facilities also must consider high media visibility, added employee protections and community concerns. Potential short-term revenue is incidental to the public's reaction to accepting such waste, says Earth Compliance's Arredondo.

In American Waste Industries' case, “when the media reported the wrong information — identifying the company as a hazardous waste facility instead of a medical waste facility and that 60 truck loads of anthrax would be coming through town instead of just a few — community uneasiness unnecessarily rose,” she says. Eventually, the media mistake was corrected, and the Virginia Departments of Environmental Protection and Labor, Richmond, among others, agreed to American Waste Industry's standard operating procedure (SOP) to address the proper handling of the anthrax-contaminated waste. The company formed a separate tracking system, and in-house medical waste experts coordinated preparation of the load for transport. Employees were given the option not to handle the waste, and six local law enforcement groups were contacted to ensure route security.

The DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) now requires hazardous materials shippers and carriers to develop security plans when transporting certain hazardous materials, and to train all employees who handle hazardous materials on security concerns and measures. Additional training is required for facilities implementing security plans.

The DOT rule is intended to ensure carriers take steps to prevent unauthorized individuals from taking control of trucks. The security component of the final rule will become effective in September, at which time hazardous material plans must include:

  • An assessment of possible transportation security risks for shipments of hazardous materials;

  • Appropriate measures to address assessed risks;

  • Measures to confirm information provided by job applicants hired for positions that involve access to and handling of certain hazardous materials such as CDC-regulated select agents and toxins;

  • Measures to address the assessed risk that unauthorized persons may gain access to hazardous materials; and

  • Measures to address the assessed risks of shipments in route from origin to destination, including shipments stored incidental to their movement.

Training requirements include security awareness training for all shippers and transporters of hazardous materials so that they can enhance security and recognize and respond to possible security threats. In-depth security training is mandatory for employees of a facility required to have a security plan. The plan should include company security objectives and procedures, employee responsibilities, actions to take in the event of a security breach and organizational security structure.

The efforts by the EPA and DOT are based on known factors such as the list of threat agents, problems and successes during the anthrax incident, scientific data on human reaction to hazardous materials and epidemiology on the spread of disease. States also are developing waste handling guidelines.

According to Alan G. Woodard, environmental program specialist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, N.Y., “New York and other states are preparing guidance/regulations to address the containment, storage, transport and disposal of waste generated from the response to terrorist activities involving chemical and biological agents.”

North Carolina has established a biological agents registry imposing civil penalties on persons who possess or maintain biological agents but violate the registry requirements. “It is critical for states to work collaboratively with the waste industry to effectively respond to potential terrorist events and to ensure appropriate management of waste from such events,” Woodard says.

What It's Worth

Everyone in America wants their communities to be safe. However, pouring dollars and energy into preparing the waste industry and its regulators for a bioterrorist attack can be immense without an apparent end or means to measure success. Short of an incident, no conclusive test exists to determine whether funds were well-spent or industry leaders did their best. Yet the benefits for the waste industry in participating in homeland security planning and implementation still can be significant.

For example, careful screening of potential employees can improve labor quality and reduce the potential for workplace violence. This reduces the potential for illegal disposal, joy riders and theft on garbage trucks. Facility improvements can reduce liability from unauthorized entry by domestic meddlers.

Waste Management Inc.'s East Coast operations implemented a plan that allows the company to respond to an emergency within 24 to 36 hours after an incident. “As a result of 9-11 and our efforts to dispose of demolition materials from the Pentagon, we recognized some major concerns — the ability to respond to emergencies without risking daily customer service and eliminating the chaos that often occurs in an emergency,” says Robert Guidry, director of environmental health and safety for the Eastern area. If an incident occurs, senior managers, including a director and deputy director of operations, public relations/media manager, finance manager, logistics director, legal counsel and director of security are ready to implement and oversee security plans. “Local managers are left in place to continue managing daily operations such that quality customer service is ensured,” he says.

The plan for the eastern division was first proposed to deal with homeland security, but the Houston-based company now has a response system that addresses internal company emergencies and natural disasters. This includes awareness training for all employees and more detailed training for employees responsible for implementing the plan. “All emergency situations and evacuation plans were upgraded and tested,” says William Tisaby, WMI's director for Physical Security Operations and Systems. “Our main focus now is sharing the plan with municipalities so that they understand that we will continue to provide quality service on a daily basis and that we can handle an emergency should they need us.”

WMI will implement the plan in other regions soon but wanted to ensure the nation's capital was protected first. A bioterrorism kit also will be available on the company's Web site.

If waste managers are lucky, bioterrorism will never affect their businesses. But preparing for the unknown with even small measures, such as locking a facility gate, can improve the waste industry's bottom line as well as bring peace of mind.

Alice P. Jacobsohn is director of public affairs and industry research at the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.


Bioterrorism is not new to America. As early as 1754, the British distributed small pox-laden blankets to Native American Indians during the French and Indian War. In 1942, the U.S. tested its potential for using biological weapons when 5,000 bombs were filled with Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores at Fort Detrick, Md. Countermeasures to anthrax infection were not developed until 1953. The research was stopped in 1969 through an Executive Order signed by President Richard Nixon. Reportedly, all stockpiles were destroyed in 1971 just before the United States, former Soviet Union and Iraq signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972.

However, Bioterrorism is not limited to war with foreign entities. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult contaminated salad bars in an Oregon town with Salmonella. More than 750 people became seriously ill. The investigation of the incident indicated that some Rajneeshee leaders were attempting to gain control of open political seats in the town council by eliminating voters. Although this did not happen, many restaurants closed because they could not survive the bad publicity and lost business while people stayed away.

Perhaps the most familiar incident in recent U.S. history is the anthrax incident of 2001, in which letters contaminated with anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. Postal Service to key political leaders and media. Five people unrelated to the intended victims died as a result of the release, and many suffered from potential exposure. Speculation on who was responsible for the incident has seesawed between domestic terrorism and the possibility of an “act of war” by a foreign group, i.e., Al Qaeda.