Lethal Burritos with a Side of Lead

Disposing of hazardous waste in the wake of the Joplin, Mo., tornado.

November 10, 2011

3 Min Read
Lethal Burritos with a Side of Lead

By Tommy Clarkson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Around large, mangled tree stumps, long corrugated metal sheets wrinkle, wrapped like frozen wet paper towels pointing in the direction of the storm’s ferocious winds.

The F-5 category tornado that ripped out much of Joplin’s core was bad indeed. Much slower than a normal tornado of that ferocity, it stayed ground-bound for 22 minutes, destroying all in its path. After the disaster it became clear that many of the homes destroyed were old and laced with asbestos.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) all shared concerns about the manner by which this deadly carcinogenic material would be removed from those mangled structures. Meeting the stringent requirements of these organizations fell upon the Corps, which performed the actual removal.

Under the direction of Col. Anthony J. Hofmann, the professionals of ACE’s Kansas City district tackled this complicated chore as though it were another “day as usual” of difficult undertakings.

Terry Chase, of ACE’s New England district, flew to Missouri to assist the Kansas City organization. He served as a site foreman for debris collection. Chase described asbestos used around pipes, like those found in Joplin, as “generally the most dangerous as it flakes, allowing the fibers to easily become airborne. That 50- to 60-year-old siding that we’re seeing a lot of presently is probably the next worst,” he said during the remediation.

“We take every necessary precaution, from spraying the air around the work site where we are loading debris, to how we seal the material before taking it to the landfill,” Chase said.

Air sampling technicians from OSHA regularly visited these sites to enforce EPA standards regarding the monitoring for asbestos fibers found in field workers’ breathing space. Chase said his team consistently received a “thumbs up” for compliance from those technicians.

Sheets of heavy ply plastic are wrapped and secured around the asbestos-contaminated debris, forming bundles called “burritos.” One way the Corps ensures safety is by using high tack spray adhesive to secure the burritos, rather than the often used but less secure technique of taping the plastic together.

“The use of this spray by our contractors binds the plastic sheets together in a much tighter seal,” Chase said.

Another factor that must be considered during hazardous waste cleanups like Joplin is the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund. Jasper County, where Joplin is located, is the site of numerous old lead mines and is on EPA’s list as one of the most polluted sites in the United States. This complicates both debris collection and where the asbestos burritos can be buried.

“I don’t think most folks have any idea of the lengths to which we go and just how careful we are in trying to ensure their post disaster health and safety,” Chase said on the site of the cleanup. “But I’m glad we do what we do and am proud to be a member of the Corps that maintains such high standards!”

Tommy Clarkson writes on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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