Never Let a Disaster Go To Waste

South central Louisiana experienced massive flooding in August, causing destruction on par with Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Nevertheless, some environmental groups seized the opportunity to advance their own agendas in the wake of the flooding.

According to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, over 145,000 homes and 12,000 businesses employing 136,000 people are located within the flood area. Over 360,000 people live and work within the flood areas. Most did not have flood insurance to deal with the estimated $20 billion in damages.

Obviously, the damaged materials in these homes and businesses had to be removed. Hurricane Katrina, and the potential for rapid mold growth, was on many minds as the flood waters receded. Many decided to act immediately to remove damaged materials, such as sheetrock and furniture, and begin the process of drying wet studs. Throughout the region, the process began with residents emptying their homes of possessions, trying to salvage what they could, and removing wet sheetrock and insulation. Neighbors helped neighbors, and people from all walks of life volunteered to help in the process. Most people simply carted items to the curb for pickup and disposal.

The Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) did issue guidelines regarding separating debris at the curb, suggesting waste be segregated into six categories: household trash, vegetative, debris, construction and demolition (C&D) debris (which includes sheetrock), white goods, electronics and household hazardous waste. Obviously, segregating waste at the curb facilitates proper disposal. For example, if C&D waste is properly segregated at the curb, it can be picked up and brought directly to a C&D landfill. Unsegregated waste streams must be brought to a more protective industrial or municipal landfill.

As many struggled to address their homes and businesses, minimize their damage and regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives, some environmentalists and environmental organizations sought to capitalize on the disaster by complaining about the behavior of some impacted residents and raising familiar concerns.

Environmentalists first complained residents were not following the LDEQ separation guidelines, either by accident or just not wanting to spend the time separating the wastes. Apparently it did not dawn on residents to consult the LDEQ website to receive instructions on how to separate their wastes. Most were simply trying to address the damage inside their homes before the mold became unmanageable.

Environmentalists also expressed concern wet sheetrock, which emits hydrogen sulfide gas as it decomposes, would be disposed of in “unlined disposal sites.” However, sheetrock is included within the definition of C&D debris and may be disposed of in unlined C&D landfills. So, even if wastes were segregated, wet sheetrock may be disposed of in a C&D landfill. If it is mixed with other types of wastes, it would have to go to a more protective landfill. Further, if the concern is the escape of gas from decomposing sheetrock, the liner at the bottom of the landfill should not matter.

Finally, environmentalists expressed concerns wastes would be disposed of in overwhelming minority or environmental justice communities. Many landfills are located in such communities. Interestingly, though, minority communities were also greatly impacted by the flooding. Wastes from many of their homes were placed, unsegregated, out on the curb to be picked up and brought to the landfills near their own communities for disposal.

Although waste segregation and proper and equitable disposal are important issues, addressing them may be best left to a time when people are not in the middle of a disaster. For its part, the Baton Rouge area joined together, house by house, to help each other address the problems caused by the flooding. Donations to flood relief can be made at

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