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Dirty disposal of oil cleanup material

A check of how used boom and other spill cleanup material are being handled and disposed of shows a haphazard effort at best.
Soiled, oil-absorbing boom and other debris sit in an open, improperly lined waste container in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 17.
Soiled, oil-absorbing boom and other debris sit in an open, improperly lined waste container in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 17.Jay Reeves / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A leaky truck filled with oil-stained sand and absorbent boom soaked in crude pulls away from the beach, leaving tar balls in a public parking lot and a messy trail of sand and water on the main beach road. A few miles away, brown liquid drips out of a disposal bin filled with polluted sand.

BP PLC's work to clean up the mess from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history already has generated more than 1,300 tons of solid waste, and companies it hired to dispose of the material say debris is being handled professionally and carefully.

A spot check of several container sites by The Associated Press, however, found that's not always the case.

Along the northern Gulf coast, where miles of beaches have been coated with oil intermittently for two weeks, the check showed the handling and disposal of oily materials was haphazard at best.

A mound of oily sand sits in an uncovered waste container in a parking lot at the crown jewel of Alabama's park system, Gulf State Park. Water from the previous night's storm drips out of the bin into a brown pool on the asphalt.

In Pensacola, Fla., along the road through Gulf Islands National Seashore, trash bags from the debris removal hang over the side of big storage bins.

A waste collection area dotted with numerous bins full of spill debris stands in what seems like an odd spot: Smack in the middle of the tourist section in Gulf Shores, Ala., directly across the street from a seafood restaurant hungry for customers because of a lack of tourists.

Cleaning up a spill is an undeniably messy job, particularly when crude oil or tar balls are washing ashore in varying amounts in four states. The debris isn't classified as hazardous waste, so it can be placed in landfills that accept ordinary household garbage, including table scraps.

Yet Jerry Kidd, doing maintenance work at a condominium, couldn't believe it when he saw a Waste Management Inc. truck pull away from a collection site in Orange Beach piled with loose sand, oil-smeared protective gear and oily boom pulled out of the water. It was trailing pollution of its own.

The company says it is using 535 containers lined with what amount to huge black trash bags to collect debris from Mississippi, Alabama and part of the Florida Panhandle under a contract with BP. But not all of the bins really are lined, and liners have failed in others.

"They're going down the road leading to the landfill; they take the same route every day. They're leaking onto the roads, into the storm sewers," said Kidd. "There's no telling where it's going."

The Alabama Department of Public Health, which regulates the transportation of such wastes in the state, said it wasn't aware of the problem until contacted by AP.

"This needs to be taken care of, and get these things sealed tight," said Pres Allinder, director of environmental services for the department. "There's no point in collecting this stuff if they're just going to spread it around."

Waste Management is taking solid wastes from the three states to landfills in Vernon, Ala.; Pass Christian, Miss.; and Campbellton, Fla. Spokesman Ken Haldin said the company would be more careful, having drivers check bins for problems and possibly using a new type of liner, because of the AP findings.

"It is something we are going to be addressing," he said. "They're probably isolated situations, but we are still early in the process with all this work."

Despite problems, Haldin said Waste Management is trying to make sure oil spill contamination isn't spread inland.

"There are a whole set of steps we are taking to make sure this operation is safe," he said.

Liquid waste, such as oily water left from the cleaning of oil-blocking booms or the mix of oil and water picked up by skimmer boats in the Gulf, is handled separately. The oily residue is processed for sale where possible and the water is reused or injected underground.

The amount of waste being generated sounds staggering, but it's not unusual in the disposal business.

"This whole spill is going to be a drop in the bucket for its impact on landfills," said Vic Cullpepper, technical director at River Birch Landfill, near New Orleans. "A lot of people are trying to blow this up and say it's going to be a problem for landfills, but it's not."

BP says 761 tons of crude-contaminated waste already has been buried at the two landfills in Alabama and Florida. Some 13,100 cubic yards of oily waste have been buried in Louisiana, where the amount is being tallied by volume instead of weight.

Marlin Ladner, a supervisor with Harrison County, Miss., is angry about spill waste being buried in his coastal county, which still is trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The county could use the dumping fees from the disposal operations, he said, but there are too many uncertainties.

"I just don't think it's worth it," he said. "I just have a problem with BP, in effect, polluting our beaches, bays and estuaries and then turning around and hauling that stuff and dropping it just four or five miles from the coast here."

BP says no oily material will be sent to the Mississippi landfill.