Waste from Hurricane Florence continues to overwhelm landfills

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More than four months after Hurricane Florence battered the state, rivers of waste are still flowing to landfills in eastern North Carolina in volumes that their managers say they have never before seen.

Uprooted trees, broken furniture, sodden carpets, soggy sheet rock, smashed fencing, crushed carports and moldy clothing make up the mix of items destroyed by the September storm and subsequent flooding.

The trash piling up at some sites may not be disposed of until summer — or perhaps not until next year. Caravans of trucks are bringing new waste daily, and solid waste workers are logging major overtime to keep up with the load.

“This is to me — and I’ve only been through three major storms — the most natural-disaster related waste generation I’ve ever seen,” said Joe Suleyman, environmental management director in coastal New Hanover County, in a phone interview. “There have been days I was stressed more than normal. You’re pushing your people really hard. You can’t see an end in sight.”

Hurricanes are commonly measured by wind speeds and cresting river levels, as well as by lost lives and financial losses. Landfills provide yet another measure of a storm’s fury: the sheer volume of discarded property and demolition debris.

Health hazards

Soaked in flood bacterial-infested waters and festering with mold, the hurricane’s aftereffects are handled by professional sanitation workers as well as untrained homeowners who slosh in dirty water, rip out carpets and drag out household goods marinated in the cafe-au-lait swirls of cresting rivers. A half-dozen health departments in eastern North Carolina said this week they don’t know of any reports of people becoming ill from the exposure, but the pros who come in contact with hurricane wreckage know to protect themselves.

Scott Hair, who owns his own remodeling business in Wilmington, said severe reactions to mold have taught him to require his employees to wear masks and gloves. He was at the New Hanover Landfill in Wilmington on Thursday, his third visit that week, dumping 900 pounds of lumber, sheet rock and other parts of a house that was destroyed by a felled tree and inhabited by rats, mice and a raccoon.

“You get the migraine feeling, you have a hard time breathing, you’re constantly coughing,” Hair said, recalling the effects of several days of mold exposure. “We tell everyone now to wear masks and protective gear when there’s mold involved.”

An untold amount of storm waste awaits haulers at 142 temporary disaster holding sites set up in eastern North Carolina to manage the overflow, Ed Mussler, chief of the Solid Waste Section within the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said in a phone interview.

The state agency, which issues permits to landfills and oversees their operations, won’t have a preliminary estimate of total waste generated by the storm until the spring, and the final assessment won’t be ready until late summer, Mussler said.

So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials have received requests from 251 agencies and nonprofits for federal reimbursements to cover the cost of debris removal related to Hurricane Florence, said Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. To qualify for the money, those organizations must remove all debris by March 13, according to FEMA.

Officials estimate that the emergency reimbursements will total $179 million, Acree said; to date, $1.6 million has been paid out for clearing the mess that Florence made.

‘You can’t build higher forever’

Landfills are built to last for decades, with capacity for expansion by digging new crypts, or “cells,” as old dumping areas fill up and max out. A single hurricane that knocks off a year from a landfill’s life expectancy is not generally a cause for concern, said Morton Barlaz, a N.C. State University landfill expert and head of the university’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.

But as global warming increases the intensity and frequency of hurricanes, and as population increases every year, some landfills are going to fill up earlier than planned. Officials will be forced to either build more landfills or truck the waste away — a costly and sometimes difficult endeavor.

“Landfills are hard to site, so people want them to last as long as possible,” Barlaz said in a phone interview. “You can’t build more cells forever, and you can’t build higher forever.”

The Coastal Environmental Partnership, which handles solid waste for Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties, has seen its waste volumes double compared to last year, said executive director Bobby Darden, in a phone interview. The organization had to request expedited permit processing from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to expand its facility in December.

Darden said the waste volumes from Florence far exceed Hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Matthew in 2016. In just three months after Florence, the organization’s Craven County landfill filled up with the equivalent of seven months of debris. The landfill is operating on extended hours and employees are working extra shifts to keep up.

“We knew it would be a marathon going forward,” Darden said.

The Scotland County public landfill is sitting on more than 8,000 tons of logs, limbs and trees, which are slated to be ground into wood chips. Bryant Higgins, the county’s public works director, is applying for a FEMA cleanup reimbursement, and is asking for an extra 24 months — until March 13, 2021 — to whittle away at the mountain of wood. The task will require the Scotland County facility to buy extra equipment, rent an extra dump truck and hire a truck driver.

“Everyone in eastern North Carolina has been hammered,” Higgins said in a phone interview. “We’re all in the same boat.”

Lower revenue, higher expenses

Perhaps no landfill has been as severely hit as the 270-acre New Hanover solid waste site in Wilmington, where handling hurricane-related work has cost an estimated $1 million in operating expenses. The emergency conditions prompted the county commissioners to waive dumping fees for two months, causing a loss of $800,000 in revenue, while overtime payments to workers are approaching $100,000.

That doesn’t include extra costs for fuel and other hidden costs, said Sam Hawes, the landfill manager, in his office on Thursday.

Hawes said not a day passes without traffic getting backed up, some days snaking out of the facility and crawling on U.S. 421 North.

“They’re processing trucks every 20 seconds, continually all day,” Hawes said.

Travis Baker, owner of Coastal Construction and Remodeling in Wilmington, delivered more than a ton of shingles to the New Hanover County Landfill on Thursday, stripped from a house that was damaged by a toppled tree during the storm. Baker has made at least 30 such trips to the site since October, and expects to make dozens more as he and other contractors work their way through the backlog of homes draped with blue tarps and awaiting repair.

He had to rent a trailer to haul the junked shingles because the waiting list for a trash bin rental is three weeks, he said. He hauls waste to the landfill several times a week, and said that two weeks ago he waited in line three hours to get processed.

“Just about ever roof in Wilmington is getting redone,” Baker said.

The New Hanover landfill had 18 months of holding capacity before Florence, but it filled so quickly, it had to receive state approval to hold more waste than the site was originally allowed. It has now opened a new cell to handle waste — four months before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.