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From Disaster to Recovery:  Waste Management Planning and Response

EPA scientists develop innovative tools to assist decision-makers manage wastes from natural and man-made disasters.

Toxic Art

Stories of disaster and destruction regularly make headlines—tornadoes, terrorist attacks, oil spills, wild fires, nuclear accidents, and hurricanes. Most of us focus on the high-profile rescue efforts during and immediately following these crises. We seldom consider the longer-term cleanup efforts that follow—particularly managing waste and debris—which is a critical step toward preventing the spread of contamination and disease, protecting human health and the environment, and restoring the buildings and places affected by disasters.

That is where a new set of decision support and waste management tools developed by EPA researchers comes into play.
According to Dr. Shawn Ryan, Director of EPA’s Decontamination and Consequence Management Division (DCMD), early waste disposal decisions can affect the safety and efficacy of cleanup and recovery following an incident (accidental or deliberate release of a hazardous substance) or disaster. He says that the anthrax attacks in 2001 demonstrated how “waste can drive a situation.” For example, the largest cost of decontaminating the buildings targeted with anthrax mailings was waste disposal.  As a result, the decontamination strategies used for subsequent anthrax incidents focused on minimizing waste and debris.

Recognizing the importance of waste and debris management in an emergency, EPA researchers developed the Incident Waste Assessment System and Tonnage Estimator (I-WASTE) to help cleanup and recovery managers make crucial decisions about handling, transporting, treating, and disposing of waste and debris.

“I-WASTE is a powerful tool that helps emergency responders identify the types and quantities of waste from an incident, a critical first step in responding,” says Ed Repa, Ph.D., Director, Environmental Programs, National Solid Wastes Management Association.

The suite of Decision Support Tools is designed to, “…get the best information out so that decisions are made in such a way that human health and the environment are protected. These tools are intended to provide one-stop access to the information and decision processes needed to safely manage waste and debris for a wide range of natural and man-made disasters, animal disease outbreaks, or terrorist attacks,” according to Lemieux.

The idea for the tools emerged in 2003 during an EPA workshop attended by representatives from federal and state agencies, the waste management industry, academia, and chemical/biological experts from the U.S. Army.  Workshop participants recommended storing information about the most current waste disposal strategies and technologies in a single location so that it could be accessed quickly during an emergency.  This led to the creation of the first version of the tools in 2004. Since that time, the tools have been updated using focus groups, workshops, and reviews with potential users to gather suggestions for additional features as well as ways to make the resource easier to use.

The latest version of the I-WASTE supports waste disposal decisions related to:

  • contaminated buildings;
  • contaminated water and wastewater systems;
  • the dispersal of radiation;
  • natural disasters, and,
  • agricultural events such as an outbreak of bird influenza.

The tools provide access to information such as regulatory contacts at the local, state and federal levels; the amount and type of waste to expect in specific situations; contacts for handling, transporting, treating and disposing of waste and debris; and lessons learned from previous events. Some unique features of the tool include a waste materials estimator, links to treatment and disposal facility databases, and a template that allows users to create incident planning and response records.

I-WASTE tools have been used for planning and developing response plans for airports in cases of chemical or biological attacks, and for cities in the event of a detonation of a radiological dispersal device. They were also used in response to recent wildfires in the San Diego, California area, and during Hurricane Katrina.  Even though these tools were used during these high-profile events, Lemieux believes that few potential users are aware of I-WASTE’s availability. “We’re trying to increase its visibility, along with the number of users,” says Lemieux. “In the future, we would like to see I-WASTE used more widely so that waste management issues don’t drag down the whole response and recovery process…that would be a major success.”

EPA recently released the latest version (6.1) of the I-WASTE. Comments from an external peer review conducted last month will be incorporated in finalizing this version of the tool later this fall.  Managing wastes safely and efficiently is a critical element of responding to an incident and restoring communities .

For access to the tool, please visit: http://www2.ergweb.com/bdrtool/login.asp. Exit EPA Disclaimer

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