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EPA Removes 64,000 Hazardous Items from Joplin Debris

Agency is Monitoring Air, But Not Water Quality in Joplin After EF5 Tornado
Joplin Cleanup EPA

This morning on our Sense of Community series, we’re looking at the environmental impact of the Joplin tornado. I’m Jennifer Moore. 

When the 200 miles per hour winds hit, thousands of hazardous items were hurled into the air or left behind in the debris:  a bottle of bleach here, an entire shelf of paint there. What’s more, billions of unfamiliar particles swirled the air as buildings began to crumble to their unforeseen destinies. 

[Sound:  truck engine, brakes]

On this day, an enormous, double loader truck is inching its way through southwest Joplin, loading up flattened sticks and stones, former houses. As the Army Corps of Engineers removes this debris, its crews are keeping a close eye out for potential dangers.

Jeff Hepler, who’s monitoring the Corps’ execution of the job, points to a collection of containers on the side of the road.

“Well, just like what you see here, you see household hazardous waste on the curbside. They’ve recognized it and they’ve pulled it out:  some gasoline, some antifreeze, some paint. Over there, you see some electronic goods that were pulled out, because we don’t want those going into the landfill, either. So, as we go down the street, these harmful products are pulled out and segregated for the Environmental Protection Agency to pick up,” said Hepler.

Reporter Standup: “After it’s picked up off the curb, the hazardous waste is brought here, to a warehouse just off of Rangeline.  Men in protective, white bodysuits are receiving the goods and placing them in various categories according to what’s inside these containers.”

“Pesticides. Bleach. Solvents. Gasoline. If you can just imagine going through your house and finding anything that’s got a scary label on it…well, there are a lot of scary labels out there right now,” says Chris Whitley, a spokesperson for the EPA on site in Joplin.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been assigned the mission from FEMA of safely getting rid of household hazardous wastes, so-called “white goods” like refrigerators and microwaves, and electronics.

“The contents that come out of refrigerators and freezers will go to one place. Pesticide disposal goes to one place versus the disposal of solvents.  All of the hazard substances that come out of this process have to go to different disposal areas, and actually licensed disposal landfills—proper special landfills for that purpose,” Whitley said.

But before it’s shipped off to those small, highly specialized landfills across the state, it has to be stored in a way that doesn’t cause a fire, explosion, or gas fumes.

As of this week, the EPA has collected over 64,000 potentially dangerous items in the Joplin area. Most of those items are household hazardous waste…but it’s also picked up over two and a half thousand fridges, freezers and air conditioner units, and over 17,000 electronics items ranging from curling irons to TVs—some of which were built with tubes full of lead. The electronics found in the debris will eventually be recycled.

 [Sound:   EPA contract crew on site, car doors shutting]

I went out with an EPA crew loading up white goods.  The foreman, Marco Aguera, explains to me that almost all refrigerators are built with Freon—a colorless, odorless compound notorious for hurting the ozone layer. He, like the others on his team, has been through extensive training on the chemistry involved in this job…and, Joplin isn’t his first rodeo.

“I’ve been through Katrina, Rita, Ike, Greenesburg, Kansas tornado…so I’m pretty much aware of all of this,” he said.

Joplin is, however, presenting unique challenges.  Whitley says the sheer magnitude of the devastation here is greater than most disasters the EPA works on.  Second, the cleanup crews are now working under extreme heat.

“They’re having to empty refrigerators that have been sealed and without power for several days. That is not a pleasant task.  And it has to be done in 90 degree heat, wearing respirators,” Whitley said.

Also, this disaster involved a hospital, with radioactive material, chemicals and jet fuel for the helicopter.  What’s more, large stores filled with hazardous products were hit hard, like the Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Another thing the EPA is watching out for is the air quality. Whitley says the EPA is monitoring two things in the air every day.

"One is asbestos, which, quite reasonably could be released into the air from events like this, and also from demolition that occurs after events like this,” he said.

The other, he says, is fine particulate matter…which, in his words, is just a fancy name for dust.

“Dust, composed of all sorts of things, that one might imagine would be created when homes are smashed to bits, can pose very severe health problems, especially when it’s in fine particle form, and can be breathed into the lungs,” Whitley said.

As of this week, the EPA has not seen any asbestos in the air, he says, and the few times it has seen an increase in dust has been around isolated incidents, like a fire.

Whitley says the EPA is not investigating whether the spills and the carnage caused by the tornado have affected water quality.

“What it might ultimately do to groundwater really can’t be said, but that’s not the immediate focus right now,” Whitley said.

I asked him, “Why not?”

“First of all, there’s a lot of debris on the ground and a lot of things that are still happening as far as getting the debris out of the way. Plus, the air monitoring is a more immediate and more likely situation where you would have health concerns,” Whitley said.

And ultimately, he said, the EPA only responds to the missions FEMA assigns to it…and so far, water quality is not one of those missions.  He added that there hasn’t been any evidence like fish kills or four smelling water to indicate that Joplin’s water is polluted, and that anyone who drinks from a treated water system shouldn’t have to worry about contamination.

The EPA is a critical ingredient in a much larger cleanup team of agencies and organizations spanning every level of government.

Governor Jay Nixon has placed his trust in the Missouri National Guard Task Force Pheonix to oversee the debris removal. That team is hoping that, like the mythical Pheonix bird it’s named after, its current project—Joplin—will rise up from these ashes, reborn and ready for a new existence.

Join us this afternoon at 4:30, when we’ll be taking a critical look at the warning system in place for severe weather in the Ozarks.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.