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Mountains of hurricane debris: what to do with it all?

It will take months to dispose of an estimated 20 million cubic yards of debris after Hurricane Irma, and that's just the dead tree branches, officials say. Some counties plan to turn it into mulch and compost, while a small portion may get turned into electricity.
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27 Sep 2017 – 02:20 PM EDT

The big Florida mulch: cleaning up after Hurricane Irma, step by step (IN PHOTOS)

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Think pyramid-sized mountains of debris, on a scale of the pharaohs.

That's what Florida county waste disposal officials are looking at in the clean up after Hurricane Irma.

For residents geting tired of dead vegetation browning in piles by curbsides, the bad news is it will take months to collect and dispose of.

"We are estimating three months to get it all cleared," said Willie Puz, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, adding that Irma left an estimated three million cubic yards of debris just in the Palm Beaches. "We are asking all our residents to be patient," he added.

A survey by Univision of the counties most hit by Irma found varying estimates around the state: more than four million cubic yards on the west coast in Collier County (Naples), three million cubic yards each in Miami-Dade County and Broward County, two million cubic yards in Monroe County (the Florida Keys), and one million cubic yards in Hillsborough County (Tampa).

In Pinellas County (St Petersburg) officials said they plan to pick up enough debris to fill 4,225 dump trucks. Lee County (Ft Myers) says it has 2,436 miles of county roads that have storm-related horticultural debris to be removed.

Enough debris to fill 6 pyramids of Giza

Florida officials say they are making a tally which could surpass the 20 million cubic yards of debris (one ton = apprx. 6 million cubic yards) disposed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the state's costliest storm prior to Irma. Roughly speaking that's about six times the size of Egypt's famous Great Pyramid of Giza, which stands 455 feet tall (139 metres), or 6,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Among several public health concerns, piles of rotting debris can lead to rodent infestations if left uncollected for weeks, they can also be a fire hazard as they dry, and can cause accidents by creating obstacles on roads and sidewalks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse local governments for most of the cost of removal - which could exceed $200 - after President Donald Trump declared a federal emergency ahead of Irma's arrival.

Most counties began collecting the tree debris at designated management sites last week, and are still working out what to do with the waste. Most of it will be ground up and recycled as mulch. distributed to local farms, while a portion may also be burned to make electricity at a handful of "waste-to-energy" facilities around the state.

Mulching machine

At one major debris collection site in Miami Lakes, a massive 60-foot-long, 20 ton grinder was at work Sunday, mulching 12 hours a day from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

"As the trucks arrive we measure how much debris they have," said supervisor Robert Peterson, standing on a hydraulic skylift about 20 feet in the air, as he looked into the bed of a large truck.

"We are committed to helping South Florida get back up and running right," added Peterson, who is a contract worker for the major Washington D.C.-based emergency disaster company Witt O'Brien's.

Compared to the last major hurricane to hit Miami, Andrew in 1992, Peterson said "the technology is way better. We can get the work done quick."

Most counties say they will do everything possible to avoid throwing it in landfill, partly due to limited space, but also for environmental reasons.

Collier County said its debris removal contractor, AshBritt, will process the material and more than likely send it to farms. "The material will not be put in the Collier County Landfill," said Margie Hapke, a spokesperson for the Public Utilities Department.

Palm Beach contracted 400 trucks, mostly from out of state and has set up a handful of debris collection sites around the county. "Our initial estimate is that is will be for tens of millions of dollars, just for debris clean up," said Puz.

Waste to energy

Florida has the nation's largest waste-to-energy capacity, with 11 facilities accounting for more than one-fifth of the nation's electricity generation from municipal solid waste, made up mostly of household garbage.

Florida's $672 million Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility (REF#2) which opened in 2015 is the largest WTE electricity generator in the United States. Palm Beach has two WTE facilties that can burn 5,000 tons of waste per day, annually generating enough electricity to power about 40,000 homes for a year.

However, the amount of storm-generated debris a WTE facility can accept depends on if it is operating at the capacity set by a Florida State permit, said Sarah Shellabarger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). As most facilies run a near-capacity its uinlikely they will be able to burn much of the hurricane debris.

That's not a bad thing say some environmentalists who raise concerns about potential air pollution.

Mulch is best option

"I think mulching is a good idea," said Colleen Castille, a land use and green solutions consultant and former head of Florida's DEP. "The best option is not to have it burned. There's still a lot of pollution. If you can recycle it into the natural eco-system you are better off from an human impact point of view."

Waste officials say the incinerators that power steam turbines are a clean and safe alternative to landfills. In addition to reducing the garbage put in the county landfill, their use will reduce greenhouse gases. However, they prefer burning municipal solid waste as it generates more heat energy than vegetation and is also an effective way of disposing of non bio-degradable plastics.

Broward County says it plans to send it's hurricane debris to a county landfill for disposal. "It will be processed first (into mulch)," according to Notosha Austin, manager of Broward County Solid Waste and Recycling department.

Kimberly Byer, Hillsborough County's Director of Solid Waste Services said the county has two WTE facilities but they are running at near capacity (97 per cent) on regular municipal waste.

"Burning is not really an option for us. Mulching is our best option," she said. Another option was composting, which uses a 50-50 mix of mulch and treated sewage to cover the garbage on landfill sites. "This has a biological use as it seals off the odors (and birds and rats)," Byer said, adding that state regulations require landfills to be covered.

Homeowners also use mulch in gardens to control weeds.

"Everything will be mulched. We are trying as much as possible not to use landfill," said Byer.

Miami-Dade County is in a similar situation. It's 77-megawatt facility is operated by Covanta Energy, a private contractor, also operates near capacity.

Some yard waste tips from county waste officers:

* ensure that your piles of yard waste contain only hurricane debris - tree branches, shrubs, palm fronds, etc. Yard waste does not include fencing, decorative borders or other structural material.

* some counties allow residents can take their debris to sites. Check with your county solid waste website.

* place your debris at the curbside as soon as possible.

* there is no need to schedule collection of your hurricane debris pile. Hurricane debris piles will not count against your available bulky waste pickups.

* situate piles at the curb away from fire hydrants, parked cars, utility poles, mailboxes and other personal property that might be damaged by equipment.

* do not put yard debris in bags. Only loose debris will be collected.

More details can be found at these county websites: