The pile of storm debris loomed nearly two stories high in Sea Bright. Cranes
worked through the afternoon one Sunday to sort the sodden, moldy refuse.
A month after superstorm Sandy flooded homes along the New Jersey Shore, piles of destroyed appliances and mud-soaked mattresses dot coastal streets. Wood, gypsum wallboard and soaked pink insulation line curbs in many communities. In parking lots, piles of rubble larger than houses are circled by sea gulls. Billions in dollars in material lay rotting and molding in the giant trash piles.
Managing the debris has proved to be a mammoth task. Towns and counties have hired waste disposal companies as municipal public works departments are overwhelmed by the daunting task.
Small garbage piles are moved to one of about 125 "temporary debris management areas" in New Jersey, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The giant mounds are placed on "environmentally responsible areas," such as abandoned sites or parking lots, he said. There, the debris is sorted, hazardous waste removed and recyclable items collected, he said.
At one debris management area along Route 70 in Brick, the sound of cranes sorting and dropping garbage boomed through a quiet neighborhood on Thursday. Matt German and his wife Susan watched the work from their front yard.
"It's a lot of people's lives right there," Matt German, 50, said as he peered at the story-high mound.
"I don't care what it looks like," said 45-year-old Susan German. "All those people lost everything. It's got to go somewhere."
The piles contain wood, furniture and mostly household items, scattered with pieces of decaying food and organic matter, said Paul Lioy, vice chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
"This is a horrible event and we've seen so much destruction of materials, of homes, and all the things that are included in those homes. There's nothing much else you can do but put them in piles," said Lioy, who also serves as director of exposure science at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at Rutgers University.
People working in close proximity to the piles should wear protective respiratory masks, but those living nearby are likely not in danger from the temporary piles, he said.
Any asbestos that may lie within -- pulled from old homes damaged by Sandy -- will not become airborne because so much of the material is wet, Lioy said. The largest concern would be that the piles could attract rodents if left there too long, or emit unpleasant odors, he added.
"It's just going to take time. It's not an easy thing to deal with," Lioy said.
Estimates on how much debris will be disposed of in the wake of Sandy are not yet clear. Cheri Huber, a regional spokeswoman with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the final tally will not be available for months, as more is pulled out of Shore towns each day.
Across the state, "it's clearly millions of cubic yards of materials," said Hajna, of the DEP.
The Ocean County Landfill, which is collecting most of the storm debris in the county, is taking in about three times its normal maximum volume, said Ernie Kuhlwein, solid waste director for the Ocean County.
On a normal, busy summer day, the landfill accepts about 2,000 tons of garbage, Kuhlwein said. Currently, the landfill is accepting about 6,000 tons a day, he added.
Because of the scale, debris from the storm could take a year to 18 months off the lifespan of the landfill, which has about 20 more years of usefulness, Kuhlwein said.
'Mound of trouble'
With the mountains of decaying material piled high around the Shore, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, a pro-environmental group, is concerned about potential environmental pollution.
"These mounds are a mound of trouble," he said.
With sewage and sludge contaminating some piles, mold and bacteria proliferate in the trash. Comingled garbage can also contain toxic waste, like paint, household insecticides, and backyard and business chemicals, he said.
The piles need to be placed on nonporous surfaces, but cleanup crews "are just piling it on fields," Tittel said. "It could get into the ground water. That was a big problem in Louisiana (after Hurricane Katrina)."
Without the proper care, the sites could contaminate the drinking water in some Shore communities, he said.
"Storms are disasters and cleaning them up is a messy business," Tittel said. "You can end up doing more harm if you don't clean up properly."
Warning against the rush to clean up as quickly as possible, Tittel urged care to be taken.
"You're not going to have perfect situations everywhere," said Hajna of the DEP. But "they (the locations) are being screened and selected with environmental safety in mind."
Heavily damaged Sea Bright, like its neighbors along the Shore, has employed the private disaster cleanup company AshBritt and a monitoring firm to oversee the extensive process, Sea Bright Council President Brian P. Kelly said.
Many homes in the borough had four to six feet of water wash through them, and the downtown business community was devastated, he said.
"It's just a phenomenal amount of debris," said Kelly. "We're doing our best to keep it organized and get it out of town as soon as possible."
Despite concerns of the variety of contaminants in the debris mounds, Helen Henderson, a policy advocate at the pro-environmental American Littoral Society, said she was relieved to learn of the carefully executed sorting and care measures taken by municipal and county governments.
"Are we worried about it? Absolutely," said Henderson. "But at some point you have to put your faith in government that they're doing the right thing."
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