Disposing of Debris & Removing Hazardous Waste

Main Content

Debris is temporarily staged and sorted following a disaster in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

Disposal of debris is a major concern following any natural disaster. No matter what state you live in, the type of debris you will encounter after a disaster will be much the same: damaged buildings, downed trees, building materials, and household and other types of hazardous waste. What varies is the way in which each state disposes of the debris. Some states have particular issues, such as soils or karstlands, which limit the areas in which debris can be stored. Since debris cannot be stored or buried in floodplains, coastal areas cannot be used for debris management. In the mountains, many of the sites that seem the best for dumping are at the bottom of a hollow – right in the middle of the floodway. In Virginia, sinkholes are a tempting burial site, but are in fact the worst place to store trash because water from these areas flows directly into the public water sources. FEMA and your state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) (or equivalent) will work together to ensure demolition, removal, and reconstruction to ensure debris removal is done quickly but at minimum risk to both the public and the environment.

General Debris Management

The principal role of the DEP is to offer advice to local officials regarding the various choices available for debris management and disposal. Municipal officials are free to determine which collection and disposal option best fits their situation. Once a decision has been made, the DEP will assist local officials in carrying out that decision.

Communities considering disposal options that include stockpiling, burying or burning are encouraged to contact the DEP for assistance in determining if hazardous materials are involved and documenting compliance with applicable Federal laws and State guidelines. This documentation is required for individuals or communities who are applying for federal aid or funding, and failure to complete it may cause you to lose your funding. It is also recommended for the simple reason that hazards are not always immediately visible and safe disposal options are not always clear. If you have any questions, you are encouraged to contact FEMA, DEP, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see Helpful Contacts in the back of this package for numbers).

Asbestos and Hazardous Materials

The DEP normally requires notification prior to demolition or renovation of any buildings, outbuildings, or other structures, to control the release of asbestos to the outside air. The DEP recommends reasonable care be taken to reduce dispersal of asbestos during removal and transport of the debris to the disposal site. Further, the DEP recommends, to the extent possible, that any asbestos containing materials (ACM) not be burned but be separated for disposal in an approved landfill. Although the DEP expects the primary source of ACM will be from commercial/industrial buildings, small amounts of ACM may be present in residential dwellings in the following form:

  • Thermal, fireproofing and acoustical insulation materials (insulation for boilers, pipes, incinerators, autoclaves, furnaces, cooling towers)
  • Transite (an asbestos cement product usually found in large gray colored sheets)
  • Resilient floor tiles
  • Roofing felt

Special care should be taken in the removal of these types of debris from commercial establishments that manufacture, sell or install ACM. If you have any questions, you are encouraged to contact FEMA, DEP, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see Helpful Contacts in the back of this package for numbers).

For hazardous chemical spills or contamination caused by the disaster, such as oil spills or well pollution, do not attempt to clean without assistance. Immediately contact your local FEMA Disaster Field Office Environmental Liaison Officer, or the Hazardous Materials and Oil Spills National Response Center, 1-800-424-8802.

Debris Burning

As open burning is normally prohibited by state rule, DEP discourages open burning as a primary disposal technique. However, some exceptions in emergency situations will be granted on a case-by-case basis by the DEP. If burning is determined to be the best option and DEP approves, it is still required that some materials be sorted for recycling, disposal in a landfill, or special disposal as a hazardous waste.

Items Requiring Special Disposal

  • Pool chemicals
  • Tires
  • Automobile batteries
  • Bicycles
  • PVC pipe
  • Explosives (ammunition, re-loading equipment, black powder, military ordinance, fireworks)
  • Fuel containers, metal or plastic
  • Pressurized gas cylinders/tanks (propane tanks, acetylene tanks, refrigerant containers)
  • Containers of petroleum based liquids, solvents, chemicals, etc.
  • Large household appliances (refrigerators, freezers, stoves, washers, dryers, etc.)
  • Off-road gas-powered equipment (lawn mowers, tractors, edgers, leaf blowers and other lawn equipment, chainsaws, 4-wheelers, etc.
  • Lawn and garden supplies (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.)
  • Radioactive waste
  • Industrial/commercial hazardous waste
  • Medical waste
  • Automobiles
  • Electrical transformers

Any appliances that could potentially contain freon or other chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) cannot be disposed of until they have been certified as being free of freon or CFCs.

All of the materials listed above may NOT be burned and must be disposed of at an approved disposal facility specific to each type of material. In most instances, these materials or other wastes may be disposed of at the Household Hazardous Waste facilities that are being organized through the cooperative efforts of various cities, the DEP and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For further information, contact the FEMA Disaster Field Office or your state DEP.

For more information, contact your FEMA Disaster Field Office Environmental Liaison Officer or click here for regional and state contacts.

Last Updated: 
06/14/2012 - 20:30