November 18, 2004 | General

Processing Woody Debris Post Hurricanes

BioCycle November 2004, Vol. 45, No. 11, p. 22
Staggering numbers show Palm Beach County with more than two million cubic yards of green waste and mixed debris; St. Petersburg with 25,000 tons of vegetation; and the state with 137 yard waste processing facilities registered. “We’re still trying to evaluate how much debris has to be managed,” says one official.
Dan Emerson

AFTER four major hurricanes that caused at least $22 billion in damage according to preliminary federal estimates, Florida began tackling the largest storm debris cleanup of the modern (post-landfilling) era. As of mid-October, public officials and private contractors overseeing the massive undertaking said the collection and initial processing stages of the operation seemed to be going about as well as could be expected, partly due to better prestorm planning and preparation, reducing red tape and logistical hassles.
“Since Hurricane Andrew, we’ve really progressed in having better plans in place,” says Francine Joyal, environmental specialist for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). As she spoke, state and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials were “still trying to evaluate how much of the debris has to be managed,” she added. “Stage one is trying to figure out the magnitude of the problem. We’re assessing how much material was handled how quickly, how much is left out there and how long the staging areas will have to keep going. Emergency orders are generally for 60 days; in some cases that may not be enough.”
As part of the emergency response to hurricane cleanup, Joyal says the state had registered 137 yard waste processing facilities, waiving the formal permitting process that would normally be required for each facility. In this case, “processing facility” means transfer station, recycling facility, or both. The state issued an Emergency Order to 38 affected counties, relaxing a number of its normal regulatory requirements for waste processors. For example, waste processors who comply with the state’s criteria have been allowed to operate air-curtain incinerators to burn fallen trees, without going through the normal permitting process.
Since the mid-1990s, Florida has required individual counties to have in place emergency management plans, which include an addendum on solid waste handling guidelines, according to Peter Grasel of the DEP who, over the last few years, visited a number of Florida counties to help teach the FEMA disaster recovery course to local governments. “We’ve been hearing that things have gone fairly smoothly, compared to the cleanup after Hurricane Andrew (in 1992), and there has been better coordination among federal, state and local agencies,” Grasel says.
The state and local governments overseeing the cleanup projects received some good news when FEMA announced it would pay a bigger chunk of the disaster recovery costs than originally expected – 90 percent for most expenses rather than the 75 percent share covered after previous storms. The extra 15 percent could mean an additional $10 million-plus in aid to Palm Beach County alone, County Administrator Bob Weisman told the Palm Beach Post.
As of mid-October, contractors seemed to be making adequate headway in removing debris. “There’s a tremendous amount of debris, but the cleanup has gone real well,” observed Buddy Young, a project manager with Crowder Gulf, an Alabama-based company that specializes in disaster recovery. “The counties have trained their citizens to put the clean vegetative debris and C&D waste in separate piles. There’s no magic in this stuff, just a lot of hard work, getting the labor and equipment organized, keeping the local governments happy, and the citizens happy. They all want it out of their yards the day after the storm passes.” Crowder Gulf has been directing the cleanup operations in about a dozen Florida counties. The company estimates it moved 1.5 million cubic yards of debris in Polk County alone.
Joe Tate, a project manager with Storm Reconstruction Services, agreed that the Florida cleanup has been going well, with one glitch: “I just wish people (homeowners) would have paid more attention to not bagging the green waste,” he explains. “We have to make separate runs to collect the bagged waste, and it has to be ground with the construction and demolition debris,” since putting the plastic bags through grinders would contaminate the green waste material. Storm Reconstruction Services, headquartered in Mobile, Alabama, operates a C&D recycling facility and has coordinated reconstruction efforts for hurricanes, tornados, floods, wind storms, ice storms and fires. Its fleets of Morbark horizontal and tub grinders and Diamond Z units, trucks and loaders can be mobilized on short notice.
Because the high winds and torrential rain of the 2004 hurricanes knocked down more large trees than previous storms, counties and cities were relying more on burning to dispose of material than in the past. “A lot of pine trees got broken in half, and there were a lot of large, live oaks with shallow root balls that fell over because of the wind and because the ground was saturated with rainfall,” Grasel notes. As a result, most counties have been doing some wood-burning, either in incinerators or in open fires.
Still, open burning isn’t without its challenges. One of the hardest-hit counties in Florida, Escambia County, has two air-curtain incinerators to burn trees, but had to shut one down because of a residential area located downwind from the burn site, according to Mark Triplett, director of solid waste management. During the 2004 cleanup, county officials have learned that incinerators “are no way to get rid of large quantities of debris,” Triplett says. “The incinerators would be effective volume reducers if I only had 500,000 yards to get rid of, but we’ve probably got 6 million yards of vegetative debris that have to be either open-burned or ground-up.”
In Palm Beach County, county crews and hired contractors moved more than two million cubic yards of green waste and mixed debris in the first 30 days of the cleanup operation, according to Patrick Byers, assistant director of compost and yard waste for the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority (SWA). “The cities moved another one million yards of their own, so we’re looking at about 3.5 million yards, so far. Everybody has been telling us that no one ever moved that much material that fast. The key to our cleanup was having as many trucks as we did on the road, and opening up sites really quickly; we were open two days after the storm left, and we had as many as 10 debris collection sites.” The county certified about 1,750 trucks and other pieces of equipment to help in the operation, and more than 1,000 workers were involved in hauling at the peak, Byers reports, plus about 100 more workers at collection sites. Of the four storms, Hurricane Francis resulted in the greatest volume of storm debris in the county.
The fact that the county had prepared a list of qualified contractors well in advance of the hurricane was also a big help, according to Byers. It had contracts in place with five different vendors. “Two general contractors came in and did the initial setup, and we also entered into contracts with a couple other haulers to help the contractors.” The flow into the processing sites peaked at about 90,000 yards/day. The county has been grinding all of the “clean” green waste and landfilling mixed waste.
One of the major challenges this time has been using large pieces of heavy equipment to pick up debris at the curb on residential streets without causing more damage, Byers notes. “There was so much debris we had to have large front-end loaders out there, the kind of equipment you (normally) never see at the curb. With equipment this size, it’s a challenge to keep from damaging roadways and swales.”
In Fort Myers, Peterson Organics, a four-year old firm, has been processing mulch from much of the green waste collected in Lee County, and was “considering a couple of other projects with Crowder Gulf,” according to Roger Peterson, company president. To collect material from a half-dozen processing sites in the county, the firm has been using Case loaders and John Deere trucks. The trucks are equipped with “self-unloading, walking-floor” trailers. Crowder-Gulf did the grinding using Morbark and Diamond Z grinders.
Those gathering and collecting the yard debris “have done a really good job” keeping it separate from C & D material,” says Peterson. “For the most part, it’s really clean material. Still, the logistics of this are pretty daunting. We’ve been moving 25 to 50 truckloads a day. But we have to keep the runs short, so we don’t have to use as many trucks; it doesn’t pay to go more than 40 or 50 miles.” Since the cleanup began in late summer, trucking rates have been about 50 percent higher than normal, “just because of the demand.”
Collecting material from four of the six processing sites in Lee County, Peterson’s firm had moved 50,000 yards, and “we’ll probably move another 75,000 yards,” he adds. “Power plants can take some of the ground wood. But there is so much material, a lot of it is going to landfills. We’re trying to keep as much of it out of landfills as we can.”
Putting these volumes into perspective, Peterson adds: “Florida produces something like three to four million tons of yard waste a year to begin with. According to FEMA, there were 18 million cubic yards of debris from Hurricane Charley, alone. That’s probably 1.5 million tons just from one storm. So (in total), there was a year’s worth of debris produced in just a six-week period.”
With such a huge amount of storm debris to process and recycle, “we expect we’ll still be picking up business for the next six months,” reports John Desrosiers, owner of Green Planet Recycling in Punta Gorda, Florida. “The big push to clear the right-of-ways is pretty much over, but materials from all the back streets and yards are going to be coming in for a long time.” With a 10-acre processing site, Green Planet sells compost and mulch material to wholesalers and retailers within a 50-mile radius. Demand for mulch has grown steadily in the 15 years he’s been in the business, Desrosiers says.
This year, Green Planet has been using a new tool, a Doppstadt Buffalo 3060 low-speed, high-torque shredder. The Buffalo’s shaft rotates at only around 32 revolutions per minute (RPM) compared to a high-speed grinder’s 1,200 to 1,800 RPM. At the end of the device’s 10-foot long shaft is a heavy-duty “comb” made of hardened steel. If metal or other unshreddable material is pressing against the comb, the hinged comb “breaks away,” allowing the object to pass and preventing damage to the equipment.
Desrosiers says the slow-speed shredder decreases his operating costs (including fuel and equipment wear) because the new machine requires much less horsepower to run than the grinder it replaced. “We’re running at one-third the horsepower and doing the same volume – not producing finished material, but 12-inch-and smaller chunks,” he says. The $400,000 grinder was introduced in the U.S. market about two years ago.
Since most of their attention was still focused on gathering and grinding the green waste, government and industry officials could only speculate on how much compost, mulch and wood chips will be produced, and how those unprecedented quantities will impact local and regional markets. How much of the processed material will remain on the ground in Florida, and for how long, “will depend on the debris contractors’ ability to find markets for the residuals,” says Triplett of Escambia County.
“There is a lot of material out there,” Byers of Palm Beach County notes. “The majority of it will be land applied as mulch. Florida has a lot of land available for this practice. The sugar mills and power plants cannot absorb the amounts generated by these storms. Yard debris processed under FEMA funding will find a resting place quickly. Other yard waste not covered by FEMA will most likely end up at private or public facilities. Very little will be shipped out-of-state unless it is close to state lines, and that would happen because the practice already occurs there.”
“As far as markets go, storm debris should not affect the prices for mulch and compost very much,” Byers contends. “Most of the debris is being coarsely ground and Florida composting sites have limits on storage times. So, not many facilities are going to stockpile this stuff hoping to make something out of it down the road, with the possible exception of landfills looking for future cover material.”
Roger Peterson notes that his company is “geared to finding end users for the product. We’ve got quite a few agricultural markets we normally deal with that can take a lot of this stuff.” Most of the mulch Peterson handles has been going to “a couple of locations — a 1,000-acre organic farmer who makes his own compost, and two tropical tree farmers who are using material to mulch a couple of acres each.”
Triplett recently became aware of a new market for wood chips, which sugar and paper mills in Florida have traditionally used for boiler fuel in large amounts. “I met with a guy recently who wants to make a chip that would be used by paper mills for pulp feedstock,” he says. “People should be aware of those opportunities that can be explored.”
Alabama-based Crowder-Gulf has found a new market for storm debris, but it’s not exactly nearby. For several years, the company has sold wood chips to be used as boiler fuel by electricity generation plants in Italy. Last year, the company sold the Italians 200,000 tons of chips made from trees felled by Hurricane Isabel, according to Crowder-Gulf President John Ramsey. The company trucks them to the port at Chesapeake, Virginia, where they are loaded onto ocean-going ships. Ramsey declined to disclose the price his company receives for the chips, for competitive reasons. “It’s a small market, but every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to be in it,” Ramsey says. “Most of the guys who want to do it (sell to Europe) are dreamers.” Profit-wise, “it’s not a terribly big deal, just a niche deal.” Given the huge amount of green waste left by this year’s hurricanes, it’s likely Crowder-Gulf will sell even more chips this year, he notes.

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