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Managing Household Hazardous Waste in the Wake of Storms

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In the wake of more frequent and more severe extreme weather, managing household hazardous waste (HHW) becomes more challenging for municipal solid waste landfill operators. While federal law does not hold management of HHW to the same standards as protocol for dealing with what is classified as hazardous waste (generated by businesses and received at hazardous waste disposal sites), these materials, from pesticides to paints to acid batteries, contain many of the same chemicals and characteristics, and are as potentially dangerous, as fully regulated hazardous wastes.

In “ordinary circumstances” operators are typically well prepared to deal with HHW, but during storms and other extreme weather, they are suddenly inundated with tremendously higher volumes. Further complicating the scenario is that these incoming loads of corrosive, flammable, or toxic materials are mixed together, along with other storm debris, posing risk for reactions and safety issues for workers. This calls for special protocol, a lot of preparation, and quick action. Three experts in managing HHW before, during, and after severe weather events share their advice to mitigate risk, ultimately protecting people and the environment.

Because of the increase in mass and mix of incompatible materials, operators have to think differently.  And preplanning is paramount; it’s key to being able to protect people and the environment and for a quick, efficient recovery, says Mike Knox, a regional quality advisor at SCS Engineers. Knox trains and supports landfill operators in dealing with these wastes, with his top focus being safety.

“In advance of storms and other extreme weather, secure household hazardous waste; make sure it’s packaged right; and minimize it where possible so the opportunity for mishaps is lessened. Identify safety areas and roles of workers. And make sure that all of your staff are up to date on waste screening training,” he advises operators. Collectively the team must know how to identify, segregate, track, and safely handle the rapid uptick in hazardous materials.


After storms Knox sees propane bottles with valves broken off and other damaged containers. He sees spray paint, poisons, and chlorine used in pools mixed with rotting food from power outages, among other mixed storm debris.

Essential to avoiding mishaps is to not combine these different materials for disposal.  So, he helps with waste classification (whether corrosive, flammable, or an oxidizer for instance) for placement and to ensure compatibility. 

Operators can benefit by setting up additional working face tipping areas for both excess volume and types of waste to keep it segregated. And as important to staging materials is good communication.

“If a truck has 1,000 gallons of dangerous liquid mixed in with other wastes, operators want to know it’s coming to be able to plan for proper identification and placement. You want to be sure these inbound materials will be properly handled and covered with dirt before sending staff to the active face in order to mitigate exposure and risk for injury,”  Knox says.

He suggests having waste screeners at the gate communicating via two-way radio with active face supervisors, notifying them if dangerous materials are arriving and informing on what they are.

To know what’s coming and to keep the surging truckloads moving through quickly, SCS often builds waste screening towers, elevated wood platforms from which staff can immediately determine incoming trucks’ contents to properly classify them. Good communication in real time allows for better decision making and keeps everyone on the same page. This adds a margin of safety.

There’s plenty more preparation that starts before the storm:
Operators should have a checklist to include questions such as: Do I have material to build observation towers? Do I have a wet weather access road and alternate tipping area should I need to reroute to a lower elevation? [Knox reminds operators: roads and slopes get muddy and slippery]. Do all of our employees have current waste screening training? Have we arranged in advance for sufficient fuel, food, and clean water?

In addition to preplanning at landfill, communicating in advance with residents is crucial, says Richard Coupland, vice president of municipal sales, Republic Services.

“In the instance of a storm or a natural disaster, we advise customers to secure their containers in the garage or tie them down, so they do not float or get blown away from their residence. Specifically, we encourage customers to secure household items that can present safety issues during a storm or cleanup, including items like propane tanks,” Coupland says.

Republic also advises customers to separate their waste into categories, in accordance with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines: regular household waste and recycling, large appliances, electronics, construction debris, hazardous waste, and yard waste. 

The national waste management company focuses on the collection and processing of contracted material, such as household garbage and recycling.  To handle unique debris caused by a storm or disaster, local municipalities contract separately with companies specializing in storm and disaster debris removal.  These companies collect and transport the material to the appropriate disposal or processing facility in the area. Working with these specializing companies, who are set up to follow FEMA regulations, helps to facilitate reimbursement by the agency for the cleanup.

J. J. Keller & Associates provides safety and environmental compliance- related consulting to businesses and government agencies, including landfill operators.

Lisa Neuberger, the company’s environmental health and safety editor, says preplanning, even before the landfill is built, is critical to be able to run efficiently and safely through major storms and other natural disasters.

“Currently, the regulations state that operators must demonstrate that the landfill will not pose a danger to human health or the environment during a 100-year flood. This is getting to be more of a concern as rainfall patterns change and flooding becomes more common in some areas.

Operators must follow the siting/location restrictions in 40 CFR Part 258 Subpart B. These include not building in floodplains, wetlands, fault areas, seismic impact zones, and unstable areas,” Neuberger says.

Further, the facility must be designed to handle water flows (run on) from the worst storm the area might experience in 25 years. The surface run-off control system must be able to collect and control the water volume that could result from a 24-hour, 25-year storm.

Once the landfill is built and operating, there are more infrastructure- related steps to brace for severe weather. Neuberger advises to secure covers, protect methane delivery methods, and move machinery under cover.

Her best recommendation to ensure readiness to best manage HHW during extreme weather and other natural disasters?

“Be sure to follow the advice of the professional engineer on design and siting. Prevention is the best policy.”

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) has detailed guidance for preparing for natural disasters.

Operators may also want to check out this SWANA document, which includes lessons learned on disaster debris management through Hurricane Katrina.  Hurricane Katrina Disaster Debris Management Report-12--22-05 (swana.org

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