In the weeks and months since Hurricane Sandy pummeled the New York City area, cleanup crews have hauled off thousands of tons of wreckage, much of it left on city streets by people trying to piece their lives back together.
But some of that refuse was most likely destined for the international metal market, not the dump.
While sea gulls squawked overhead at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways on a recent day, two excavators, each with pincers on the end of their long single arms, clawed through a towering mound of debris collected that day from storm-ravaged areas in Queens or Brooklyn. Since shortly after the storm, the park has served as one of several temporary transfer sites where a steady stream of subcontractors and sanitation trucks brings debris to be sorted.
The operators culled the pile of lumber, plastic toys and fishing poles, looking for anything too valuable or dangerous to send to a landfill. A front-end loader ferried items plucked from the mass – a stroller, a bicycle and a white appliance the size of a washing machine or oven – and carried them to a row of roll-off containers to join water heaters, an appliance flattened out beyond recognition and other mangled metal waiting to be hauled to a recycler in Queens.
As cleanup operations begin to wind down, the tally has climbed to over 430,000 tons of tree limbs, wreckage and demolition debris removed from storm-damaged areas of the city since the end of November. About half the debris was taken by long-haul trucks or barge to landfills in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
But by separating material, the Sanitation Department was able to divert more than 1,100 tons of metal scrap from storm debris to Sims Metal Management, a facility in Long Island City that also recycles cans and bottles for the city. From Queens, Sims sends metal to its New Jersey facility to be shredded and separated before being sold to manufacturers. The company exports iron-based metal to steel companies, mostly in Turkey, and sends aluminum and other nonferrous metals to China and other places.
Throughout the process of getting the waste from neighborhoods to landfill, the Army Corps of Engineers, contractors and city sanitation workers were also looking to pull out everyday objects that could pose a hazard in landfills, like propane tanks or mercury-containing tubes from older television sets.
“The person that’s working the excavator is really looking for something like that,” said Kimberly Martin, a quality assurance specialist with the Army Corps.
Ms. Martin and other specialists at the Army Corps canvassed hard-hit areas like the Rockaways, Breezy Point or Staten Island, where residents set out storm-damaged appliances, demolition debris and ruined household goods. The Army Corps and other contractors worked with the city’s Sanitation Department to separate hazardous items like paint cans, propane tanks and car batteries, which landfill operators will not accept. Sanitation workers drained oil and gasoline from lawn mowers and captured Freon from refrigerators and air-conditioners.
“The contractor cannot pick those items up until it has been tagged” as drained by the Sanitation Department, Ms. Martin said. The Army Corps contractors are also responsible for cleaning up after the city demolishes houses left uninhabitable by the storm, an effort that is still ongoing.
Found inside houses before demolition were leftover paint, solvents, household cleaners, corrosive liquids, flammable liquids, mixed oils, antifreeze, windshield-washer fluid, bleach, pesticides, fire extinguishers with dry chemical powder, and fluorescent light bulbs – hazardous goods which the federal Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of disposing. When encountered at demolition sites or transfer sites, hazards including discarded ammunition, objects containing mercury, and laboratory or industrial chemicals are set aside for collection by the E.P.A., which sorts the materials to be recycled, if possible, or disposed.
Since November, the E.P.A. collected and processed about 150,000 potentially hazardous items from New York State, mainly from the city and Long Island. The vast majority of the chemicals were in containers that were five gallons or smaller, but the agency also processed hundreds of drums, thousands of propane tanks and more than 1,600 cylinders filled with compressed gas.
“If labels were located on containers, such as drums, totes, tanks, or other large containers, the E.P.A. made every effort to contact the owner for retrieval,” Elias Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an e-mail. “For items that were not claimed – such as propane tanks, batteries, pressurized cylinders – the E.P.A. contacted companies to recycle the items. Wastes that were not able to be reclaimed, recycled or reused were sent to disposal facilities licensed to receive specified types of waste.”
After months of having crews toil on long shifts, agencies are beginning the process of ending the cleanup effort. The Army Corps plans to wrap up the bulk of its operations by the middle of April. At Floyd Bennett Field, the Army Corps burned or chipped more than 102,000 cubic yards of tree limbs and trunks felled during or after the storm.