Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Crisis of Ocean and Coastal Debris

If you are interested in taking my Coastal Politics and Policy FOR FREE please e mail me at BUT, You will NOT get academic credit from Iowa State University unless you register for credit. The class is 100% on line and runs for six weeks in May/June 2013.

Image courtesy of EPA

(c) Steffen and Paul Schmidt, 2013. This blog post is the draft chapter from our forthcoming book Coatsal Issues, Coastal Solutions.

One of the topics we revisit constantly in or classes on coastal policy is marine and coastal debris.

It is one of the consistent issues that interest us from a scientific point of view. It’s also a major concern for ocean and coastal managers.

USA Today reported, “Officials estimate that Sandy created more than 10 million cubic yards of debris in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut — enough to fill the old Giants Stadium more than four times.”

Day to day human activity produces lots of trash and debris on the best of days. We know about all the plastic bottles, straws, cans and a host of other “stuff” that human beings discard and that washes out to sea and unto beaches all over the US and the world. That’s at the level of concern about “litter” along roads and highways, a problem we have been attacking for decades now with education campaigns, fines for littering, and very organized cleanup efforts. We even have “adopt a highway” programs where clubs and organizations can adopt a stretch of read and periodically go out and collect and properly dispose of trash. And of course there are beach cleanup programs too numerous to itemize here.

But then we have the massive and truly challenging debris volume that’s created by storms, tornado's, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Here the scale is massive and the cleanup and disposal a true challenge. Only professionals and hundreds of millions of dollars can attack this scale.

Hurricane Katrina created roughly 100 million cubic yards of debris spread out specifically over the city of New Orleans and surrounding towns, the state of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and a number of other states.

It’s not just this massive volume of trash and damage that’s daunting. It’s the content of the debris that poses such an enormous challenge.

Human beings produce all kinds of stuff that, when used appropriately and according to label instructions, can be at least tolerably safe. When this all suddenly “goes wild” as I call it, there is deep, deep trouble.

In the past we used wood to heat, cook, and light. That was biodegradable to the nth degree. Now, just think of those new and energy efficient CFL light bulbs that we have all been using more and more and that, if the federal government has its way, will be the only bulbs produced and sold. What if you break one of these?

Here are the full EPA instructions:
What to Do if a Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks
Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. EPA recommends the following clean up and disposal guidelines:
  1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner.
    • Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands).
    • Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.
    • Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe.
    • Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.
  3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it.
    • If your state permits you to put used or broken fluorescent light bulbs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available).
    • Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.
  4. The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

Now imagine hundreds of thousands of these bulbs broken by Superstorm Sandy! reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has pulled 90,000 potentially hazardous items from the New York City rubble alone. Go through your house and look at all the stuff there is. Household cleaners with warnings, propane tanks, oil and gas containers in the garage, electronics full of exotic and highly dangerous metals, and those mercury infused light bulbs CFL’s mentioned above that are intended to save the environment.

US reported that at a Queens New York park the EPA workers “don full-body suits and gas masks” and then attack the toxic soup of debris. Imagine that. A city park so contaminated that it becomes a HAZMAT zone after a storm!  The report said that these workers then, “… scramble through the piles of debris to pick out hazardous materials like aerosol cans and electrical appliances. Other EPA workers test the air for a range of hazards including bacteria, viruses and fungal agents, hazardous fumes, and lead paint. Workers on the site are drawing on experiences from Hurricane Katrina and the devastating tornado that hit Joplin, Mo.

Now also consider the structures of homes and businesses, many of which are old and probably contain lead paint and asbestos which has now all been broken out of its confinement and is out there posing an unspeakable threat to coastal communities, beaches, marshes and the ocean. Add to that common coastal hazard sites especially boat yards and marinas which have a dense population of vessels all with fuels and chemicals, and the painting and repair facilities common to boatyards which are also filled with specific and highly flammable or poisonous products. There are electric transformers, generators and other equipment that may be high risk.

Add to that MASSIVE numbers of trees down which may be sitting and soaking in the toxic soup discussed here. Those and wood debris from homes 92x4’s, plywood, etc. are run through gigantic chippers and turned into a product – wood chips. – These chips are then given away to towns and countries to use in landscaping or sometimes to individuals for the same use.

The obvious debris fields, and that’s what these are just like when a pane crashes, are on thing. Actual communities and neighborhoods are relatively dense debris locations and you can concentrate a retrieval and disposal force on those locations. Another problem are remote and unconcentrated areas such as fields, woods, marshes, estuaries, wetlands, and other locations where huge amounts of debris has been scattered. Just picture what job retrieval looks like in those places.

Now comes part two of this nightmare.

Assuming that you get all this mass of material collected and sorted where do you put it?

On the best of days we have a real landfill and waste disposal crisis in the United States. There are books written on this! For example Earth's Garbage Crisis (What If We Do Nothing?) by Christiane Dorion; Rush to Burn: Solving America's Garbage Crisis? By

Newsday Inc.; The Waste Crisis: Landfills, Incinerators, and the Search for a Sustainable Future, Hans Y. Tammemagi. “Chapters discuss garbage through the ages, the age of consumerism and the waste explosion, integrated waste management, recycling and composting, waste characteristics, alternative disposal methods (existing and abandoned mines, landfill reclamation to extend the lifespan of old dumps, ocean dumping, deep-well injection, deep injection of liquid waste in cement slurry form, sub-seabed disposal), incineration issues, containment and encapsulation …”

The book, Rubbish! Dirt On Our Hands and Crisis Ahead, by Richard Girling which is described as, “This is the story of our rubbish [garbage to Americans] — from the first human bowel movement to the littering of outer space. It is an investigation of the looming problem of waste in the 21st century — our fridge mountain; our crumbling sewers; trading waste; packaging waste; the enormity of our industrial waste; spam emails and new forms of waste; horrors of incineration . . . And it is an attempt to find a blueprint for our survival: the way our lives may have to change.

Yeah it’s that bad!  And it’s that complicated.

This is a growing problem around the world. If you’ve ever been to islands, say in the Caribbean or South Pacific, you realize what a daunting challenge waste disposal has become. When we’ve sailed in these remote places one of the biggest problems is where to dispose of the boat garbage. In most venues “boat boys” come by and for a fee will take it away. We all know that they go just around the bend and dump it on the beach or in the ocean. When we cruisers and sailors try to dispose of it ourselves the monumental challenge becomes even more clear.

On the small Bahamian island of Normans key there is an abandoned resort that once belonged to legendary Colombian drug cartel leader Carlos Lehder. The property is in legal dispute. On shore next to the anchorage where the fuselages of crashed planes that tried to make drug run landings at night still stick out of the bay, there is a concrete structure. No doubt it was once a waterfront bar and restaurant from the resort. Inside the sailors have dumped their black plastic garbage bags because all said it is the least bad place to dispose. 

Dumping or burning used to be the only way anyone disposed of trash.

In Iowa for example, farmers had a ravine or area by a creek or river that was the junk and garbage pile. My son used to spend many hours on a nice day at the site near or farm and dig through, finding and bringing home all kinds of treasure – old toys, discarded tools, and fancy glass bottles some still with liquid in them. Who knows what all these sites contained. This was before the words “ecosystems” and “environmentalism” were invented. It was a time when in the transition from a world of natural garbage – wood, food scraps, cloth and paper – we slid almost imperceptibly into a world of chemicals. Only recently did we discover the disastrous effects those will have on the environment, the health of animals and plants, and our own well being.

Those who want to abolish the EPA seem to ignore the fact that their lives and the lives of future generations would be at terrible risk if someone didn’t look after the proper management, disposal, or prohibition of these many deadly products. The EPA may have been overzealous here and there in their enforcement regulations but overall without a monitor we wouldn’t even have a canary in the mine to warn us of coming disaster.

To conclude, the crisis of debris, waste, and garbage is big enough under normal circumstances. Under a sudden crisis scenario such as Superstorm Sandy it becomes an unimaginable task. And Sandy was only one storm in a string of very bad coastal storms and we expect that it was not the last.

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