Joplin Debris Field Reveals Environmental and Health Dangers

Waste collection and management is often a dirty, thankless job. However, clean-up crews in Joplin, Missouri, have learned it can be a dangerous one as well.

Following the devastating tornado in May 2011, Joplin business people and residents were left with about 2.5 million cubic yards of debris. This colossal mess had to be addressed before the town could put the storm behind them and rebuild.

With a fuller understanding of the impact of debris disposal on the environment, as well as on human health, getting rid of trash in the 21 st century involves more than piling it up and burning it. Today, storm-damaged cars, trucks, buildings and possessions must be analyzed and routed properly, especially if hazardous substances are involved.

In Joplin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been diligently working to isolate and capture toxic materials such as propane, gas, chemicals and electronics before they enter landfills. Within just over two months, the EPA had addressed:

  • 474 Batteries
  • 1,200 Cylinders of propane and compressed gas
  • 3.624 Refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers and air conditioners
  • 24,516 Pieces of Electronic equipment
  • 71,000 Containers of hazardous chemicals and other materials

The EPA is not alone in its efforts to properly dispose of hazardous materials. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to capture and contain asbestos. So far, it has collected more than 2,600 tons of the hazardous material.

Naturally occurring mineral fibers, asbestos is heat and fire resistant. It can also be deadly. When disturbed, asbestos fibers easily separate into fine particles and become airborne. If inhaled or ingested, the fibers become lodged in the person's tissue and can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer.

With these dangers in mind, clean-up crews are careful to wear protective gear including air-sampling pumps when collecting asbestos. As it is gathered and gently placed in specific locations, crews keep the asbestos wet to prevent dust billowing from the piles. Once the load is full, the asbestos is wrapped in plastic and sealed with glue and duct tape. The loads are then hauled to regulated landfills.

Cleaning up after a storm is tedious, and often hazardous, work, and the Joplin site is proving to be no different. However, due to the debris crews' careful and diligent efforts to handle dangerous materials, the town's residents and businesspeople can focus on rebuilding.