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October 10, 2012
Waste management after a biological attack

In the years after 9/11 and the anthrax mail incidents that occurred one week later in Washington, D.C., federal, state, and local emergency response, environmental, health, and agricultural agencies have been pooling ideas on the best ways to respond to a chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) wide-area incident.  One key gap in urban wide-area CBR recovery planning and operations is waste management and, primarily, waste disposal, topics that were addressed in a 2-day Wide Area Recovery and Resiliency Program (WARRP) workshop hosted earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security in Denver, Colorado.

Anthrax top concern

               The workshop suggests that mounting an effective waste management response to an attack involving anthrax continues to challenge responsible officials.  In one presentation, an EPA on-site coordinator drew a scenario in which an anthrax release into downtown Denver goes undetected for 48 hours.  While there is little infrastructure damage, the aerosolized anthrax is transmitted indoor through HVAC systems.  Such an attack has the potential to contaminate 15 to 36 million gallons of liquid and 3 to 8 million tons of solid material, such as furniture, paper and office supplies, electronic equipment, and ceiling tiles and carpeting.  Options for recovery include surface decontamination, fumigation of buildings, monitored natural attenuation, incineration, disposal in RCRA Subtitle C (hazardous waste) landfills, and potential disposal in RCRA Subtitle D (nonhazardous waste) landfills.

Key gaps

               Despite the immense amount of waste that is possible after an anthrax attack, the EPA staff at the workshop identified waste management as one of the three fundamental preparedness gaps related to terrorist incidents involving CBR threat agents. To address the gap, the Agency formed its Threat Agent Disposal (TAD) workgroup, which has researched potential types of wastestreams requiring decontamination and disposal and estimated quantities likely to be generated.  Potential barriers to disposal identified by the TAD workgroup include regulatory/statutory, policy/guidance, technical/scientific, sociopolitical, and capacity/capability.


The TAD workgroup also created a list of recommendations to help close the CBR waste disposal gap:

  • Address concerns of multiple stakeholders who object to disposal of CBR wastes on the basis of perceived health and/or liability concerns.
  • Increase the number and capacity of facilities willing to accept CBR wastes.
  • Improve regulatory and statutory processes to expedite effective disposal of CBR wastes.
  • Develop sufficient capacity and guidance to dispose of waste from a radiological attack, particularly for waste whose radionuclide concentrations are above Class A limits.
  • Evaluate existing/develop new guidance on management and disposal of contaminated or treated water.
  • Develop protocols to determine residual CBR levels in waste, particularly in biological and radiological-derived waste.
  • Explore the efficacy of treatment/disposal technologies to reduce/contain CBR threat agent levels.

Click here for a summary report of the WARRP waste management workshop and its presentations.

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