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WTF: What happens to the debris from Tropical Storm Irene? 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...

Published September 14, 2011 at 8:32 a.m.

Paint disposal at Moretown Landfill
  • Paint disposal at Moretown Landfill

More than a week after Tropical Storm Irene submerged the first floor of her family’s Moretown home, Meg Schultz is still cleaning up. She got rid of all her possessions that couldn’t be salvaged — soaked picture frames, sodden sofas, silt-caked books — immediately after the floodwater receded, and now she’s moving on to the bigger items. Mud-covered appliances sit in her driveway waiting to be picked up and hauled away. Soon she will be ripping up much of the flooring in her 200-year-old farmhouse. By the time Schultz and her family are able to rebuild, nearly every trace that they ever lived in the house will be gone.

All this stuff, these trappings of a family’s life, has to go somewhere. After catastrophic events like Irene, you can’t just put the debris in a garbage can and set it out on the curb for pick-up. So, what happens to all this trash?

The answer is, it’s being separated, sorted and hauled to the appropriate collection facilities, just as trash usually is. This being Vermont, we pride ourselves on our green bona fides, even in the wake of a devastating storm. Lest anyone think Irene gave the state a pass to disregard environmental measures, that’s not happening, says Cathy Jamieson, the solid waste program manager for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Shortly after the flood, the DEC distributed a flyer explaining how to dispose of the waterlogged contents of one’s home, from propane tanks to batteries to everything in between. The first priority for the state, Jamieson says, is to get hazardous waste discarded in safe ways, “if it’s possible for people to separate those out.”

To that end, various solid waste districts in flood-affected areas have been collecting things such as paint, solvents, various fuels, fluorescent lightbulbs, tires, ammunition and pesticides from residents. Much of that toxic waste has been going to the Moretown Landfill for separation and disposal.

John Malter, director of the Mad River Valley Resource Management Alliance, has helped oversee the efforts at the landfill. He’s astounded by the volume of waste that has come into the facility since the storm and says his staff has had to make some accommodations due to the extenuating circumstances.

“With this event, we have kind of expanded the rules to try and make it easy for folks working hard to try to do the right thing,” he says. “It’s all a part of stewardship.”

Despite the volume of material they’re seeing, waste-management professionals say they’re channeling much of it to specific processing plants rather than dumping it all in the landfill. Furniture, clothing and toys can go there. Televisions, refrigerators and cans of varnish cannot. Batteries get shipped to a facility that removes their lead. Chemicals are hauled to a plant that will blend them with other materials to create a residual fuel. Some of the liquid waste is sent to an industrial wastewater facility.

“Everything has a place to go,” Malter says.

On a recent drizzly weekday after the storm, contractors from APT Environmental in Milton empty cans of paint and solvents into their proper receptacles at the landfill. The half-dozen men dressed in white Tyvek jumpsuits and safety glasses pry open cans that probably haven’t been used in 20 years. The smell that emanates from some is noxious and overwhelming. But the men keep pouring, undeterred. Once the drums of waste paint are full, they will be sealed and sent out of state for processing.

“It’s been a really big job,” says APT foreman Lawrence Sawyer.

The Moretown Landfill has borne the brunt of the storm’s carnage. Normally, the landfill is permitted to accept 1000 tons of trash a day. But after Irene, the Agency of Natural Resources issued a two-week extension to increase its maximum intake to 1500 tons a day. On the Saturday after the storm, the landfill accepted 1300 tons, or 260 18-wheeler truckloads, its largest daily haul yet, says Tom Badowski, the landfill’s general manager. Moretown’s annual average is just 650 tons a day.

The added volume has decreased the landfill’s time-to-capacity by a week. At present, the facility has enough space to run for only another 16 months. After that, assuming its managing company, Waste Services, isn’t granted a permit to expand operations, the landfill will be capped. The only other landfill in Vermont is in Coventry; that one has also been accepting storm debris.

Household waste isn’t the only detritus churned up by the storm. With roads torn asunder and power lines knocked down, there has been plenty to clean up on the roads, as well. Much of the asphalt can be recycled, says Clare Innes of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, which has been helping other regions with their remediation efforts. So can the metal from twisted guardrails and bridge abutments. In some instances, when the gravel or concrete isn’t contaminated in any way, it can be buried, says the DEC’s Jamieson.

How about the cars, trucks and recreational vehicles that were overcome by river sludge? Most of those can be salvaged for scrap metal. And the farm animals that were drowned? They can be buried, Jamieson says.

“In an ideal situation, we would try to salvage more,” she says. “This is a storm bigger than anything I’ve gone through.”

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About The Author

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2011.


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