Launch Slideshow

Hauling and Disposing of Flood Debris

Hauling and Disposing of Flood Debris

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    The demands for waste removal were overwhelming immediately after the flood.

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    Piles of soaked carpets, furniture, and other belongings were piled in front of houses everywhere.

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    Water heaters, furnaces, doors, and more were ripped out of the lower levels and basements of homes.

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    Mold quickly became public enemy number one and getting it out of living spaces was a priority.

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    Roll-off containers placed in neighborhoods were supposed to be off limits for contractor use.

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    Items like this 1,000-pound tree stump suggests that this prohibition went largely unheeded.

(Boulder County Colo.) Countless tons of waste was created by last month's flood. If an affected building was not wiped out completely, the flood damage still turned valuable building materials and furnishings and treasured possessions into hazardous waste overnight. Warm weather and wet conditions made every pile of trash a moldy health risk that had to be taken care of as quickly as possible. Since the normal waste stream was instantly overwhelmed, the city and county government stepped in to provide extra resources to help clean up the area.

This aid to residents was provided in three different ways:

Roll-Off Containers

Roll-off containers were placed in two dozen locations around the city and suburban parts of the county for residents to place flood debris in. It was a good start, but despite containers being hauled off and replaced a couple times a day, the sheer volume of debris being dumped quickly overwhelmed the drop off sites. If a container was full, or if it was too much work to throw sodden materials up and over the side, residents resorted to just dumping their debris on the ground nearby.  Pretty soon containers were surrounded by mountains of trash and difficult to get close to.

Despite the strategic difficulties, many of these roll-offs were kept in place for weeks and were removed from sites once the dumping traffic slowed. A handful of these containers have since been reassigned to specifically hard hit neighborhoods in further-out parts of the county.

Free Waste Drop Off

The local commercial waste transfer station is offring free waste drop off to certain affected residents. The city and county of Boulder have no municipal waste system so the large private disposal company located here is being subsidized with local government funds to allow citizens to dump refuse. The deadline for city residents to dump free of charge ended when the city approved a curbside pickup plan but county residents are still eligible for this service. Of course any materials dumped with the tipping fees waived are limited to storm/flood damage and could only come from a property within the city of  Boulder or unincorporated parts of the county. Residents of other municipalities within Boulder County are supposed to use their own localized resources.

For the first few weeks after the storm, the lines to the facility's single scale house were long, but a local hauler I spoke to said the weigh-in process usually went pretty quickly.

Free Curbside Pickup

Within the city of Boulder, free curbside pickup was also instituted after it became clear that many residents had no plans to dispose of the thousands of refuse piles that sat in driveways, yards, and alleys for weeks after the flooding. This inaction was exacerbated by the high number of rental units in a college town like Boulder. The landlords didn't want to pay for private hauling of the tenants' trash, and the college kids had no motivation to dip into their own pockets for this expense, especially after losing possessions and being displaced from their residences (at least temporarily).
The subsidized pickups went on for about a month which allowed roving grapple trucks to service each house at least twice. The first pickup focused on clearing out the festering garbage while the second one also picked up appliances and piles of flood sediment that residents shoveled out onto the street.

This service was officially limited to residential waste so commercial buildings and multi-family apartments and condos with centralized trash pickup were excluded. And to get your waste picked up for sure, you were supposed to call and register your address with the city by a certain date. If you didn't, you risked being left out as the trucks finished their work past the funding deadline. Some residents I talked to didn't call in but received the service anyway. Altogether this program picked up about 5,000 tons of trash, dirt, rocks, and sand from the city's streets.

Prohibited Items

None of the disposal options provided could take landfill-prohibited items such as electronics, household and yard chemicals, automotive fluids, or outdoor equipment containing fuel or oil. And only the curbside pickup was supposed to involve appliances containing Freon or other gaseous refrigerants since they were being properly diverted by the city after pickup.

Services for Outlying Areas

Now that the more densely populated areas of the county have been taken care of, the unincorporated areas of Boulder County are starting to receive cleanup aid. Starting the first week of November, curbside pickup of debris will take place throughout mountain communities in the county. The county is doing things a little bit differently. To save costs and promote recycling and reuse efforts, residents are being asked to separate things into four different piles. General household debris, electronics and appliances, woody debris (vegetation), and mud, silt, sand and rock will all be picked up separately.

After the mountain side of the county is picked up, the plains side may get similar servicing, but that has yet to be decided. For now residents are allowed to haul both flood trash and compostable vegetation debris to the commercial disposal company's transfer station and drop it free of charge. Currently, a bigger priority for county waste resources is to remove the piles of debris from waterways and under bridges that could present a hazard the next time the water rises.

Disposal of Hazardous and Other Specific Materials

The Boulder area is very forward-thinking about reducing waste so we have waste diversion requirements and recommendations that may not be in effect in other parts of the country.

  • Compostable organic materials such as yard waste, food waste, and tree branches are collected separately from trash and recyclables and commercially composted and sold for profit.
  • Our local waste disposal and recycling facilities have roll-off containers on site for putting recyclable metal items in free of charge. Appliances that contain refrigerants cannot be dumped here, but other appliances and objects made mostly of metal can be.
  • Paints, automotive fluids, and other chemicals have to be taken to the local household hazardous waste disposal facility instead of being mixed with trash that ends up in the landfill. There is no charge for individuals dropping off items, but businesses have to pay fees.
  • Electronics (e-waste) and appliances containing refrigerants also have to be taken to a designated drop-off facility as per state law. This facility also takes other recyclable materials that aren't profitable such as plastic films, durable plastics, and even rigid foams. There is usually a charge for dropping off these difficult-to-recycle materials but it is being waived for flood-damaged items thanks to a subsidy from the county.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Debris

Handling asbestos as part of flood debris is a confusing subject that I will cover in a later blog after more definitive research. What I have found to date seems contradictory and possibly unsafe. A county website says that if asbestos is not known to be present in a building, you can handle the material it like it is non-asbestos flood debris (even though it may be asbestos.) While a state website outlines more stringent guidelines.

No guidelines or warnings are posted for handling and hauling lead paint debris in a disaster area so it is not immediately clear if RRP rules must followed under these circumstances. More on this later.

Scrappers

After an event like this, metal scrappers come out of the woodwork looking for anything metal for its scrap recycling value. They aren't supposed to remove things from trash containers or refuse piles without permission, but they will ask for and gladly take furnaces, water heaters, appliances, ductwork, pipes, conduit, wiring, and any metal junk that you may be removing from a damaged property. Having scrappers carry off these heavy and bulky items may save you a lot of effort, and the fact the materials are being recycled is also a plus. However, for copper, brass, lead, stainless steel, and aluminum, taking them into a commercial recycling company yourself may net you some easy bonus cash. Every time I used to take in a bucket of old faucet parts and copper tubing and wiring scraps saved from remodeling jobs, I would walk out with an extra $30 in my pocket.

No Contractors Allowed

It is important to note that none of the disposal services provided could be used by contractors to help save their clients money. Even though the services were paid for by taxpayer money, a resident could not hire a hauler to drive their debris to the nearest public container site without risk to the company. In fact, the Boulder County District Attorney publicly advised residents to be on the lookout for contractors illegally dumping at community waste sites and to report their license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions so they could be prosecuted. I believe these "offenders" were supposed to ticketed and fined but I'm not sure how often this happened. In flooded neighborhoods I visited, cleanup crews freely dumped uprooted trees and large amounts of debris into the roll-off containers with front-end loaders without hesitation, just like that's what the containers were there for.

For those without machinery (or at least a tall truck), using these sites isn't really worth the trouble anyway. When I hauled wet drywall and tiled wall sections out to one of the roll-offs, it proved to be quite a chore to lift everything up and over its seven-foot tall sides. And if the debris I was hauling was dripping with contaminated muck, I wouldn't have wanted to lift it over my head even I could.

Similarly, any flood sediment scooped out to the street by a contractor was specifically not allowed to be picked up by the city-funded curbside pickup. A release from the city said "Per Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations, only dirt, mud and silt removed from properties by residents will be considered for curbside pickup. Residents who are working with contractors to remove mud and silt from their properties must have their contractors haul these materials away."

I'm not sure how this helped residents because if they hired help to move the sediment, they now had to pay to have it driven and dumped somewhere instead of just getting it out onto the street for free pickup like everyone else.

For hauling flood debris waste to the local waste transfer station, contractors and haulers have to pay full commercial tipping fees. When I called to check on the reason for this with the Boulder County Resource Conservation Division, they explained that contractors would charge their clients a tipping fee either way so this rule was designed to protect the homeowners, even though it meant they now had to pay fees to dispose of their flood waste that were legally waived under local and federal disaster subsidies.

Despite the subsidies, I was told I was told "If someone even looks like they're a contractor, they will be charged." Showing a building permit proving that the waste came from a home within the disaster area would not serve to waive the fees. Only having the homeowner with you in the truck at the time of drop-off would serve as proof enough that what you were hauling was from a legitimate site according to the county. 

The lesson here for contractors is to make sure to charge your clients full price for hauling and disposal—don't expect to take advantage of any disaster services or programs intended to help clean up the damaged properties in an affected area. And the lesson here for homeowners is that as soon as you hire a professional to help you, you lose any publicly-subsidized services and benefits you deserve as both a local taxpayer and as a citizen in an area affected by a disaster.

Keep checking back for more coverage. More information on dealing with the unexpected waste left by flooding is next followed by links to guidelines and standards for clean up and restoration work. Still to come is a compilation of modified building standards during a declared state of disaster.

This is the sixth in a series of reports intended to help inform both the victims of natural disasters as well as the contractors they look to in these times of crisis.