Workers on watch for threats to environment left by flooding

Debris floats on the surface of floodwaters near Bellwood, Nebraska, in March. Officials are working to find tanks carried off by the flooding in western Iowa.

HAMBURG, Iowa (AP) — Driving along a deeply rutted levee, Heath Smith points to a basketball, picnic basket and pink Big Wheel.

He drives past a massive porch. A boat and a semi's missing trailer sit up ahead. He's found a cooler filled with beer.

"You see people's lives caught on this levee," Smith, an Environmental Protection Agency onscene coordinator, told the Des Moines Register.

The remnants from record Missouri River flooding are heartbreaking, but Smith and Jeff Pritchard, another EPA coordinator, are hunting more dangerous debris — orphaned containers filled with industrial chemicals,

pesticides, diesel fuel, oil and other potentially hazard ousmaterials.

The federal crew is in western Iowa to stop possible leaks from drums, tanks and totes and remove and dispose of the environmental threats.

"We don't want these chemicals to release any more materials than they already have," Smith said.

Their work is part of state, federal and local efforts to tackle the massive environmental challenges left in the flood's wake: Floodwaters overwhelmed private wells, sewage lagoons and public water systems, soaked over a million bushels of corn and soybeans, and picked up tanks holding propane, anhydrous ammonia and fertilizer.

The same kind of work lies ahead in Davenport, Iowa, and other newly flooded areas along the Mississippi River when floodwaters recede.

Along the Missouri River, several facilities — manufacturing plants, grain mills and farm elevators — moved chemicals before the flood hit, said Adam Broughton, senior environmental specialist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

And the sheer volume of the floodwaters diluted many of the worst environmental effects, Broughton and others said.

"The amount of contaminants is small compared to the amount of water that moves through with these floods, so we don't see a significant impact," he said.

Although concentrations are small, chemicals could linger in the river, said Larry Weber, a University of Iowa hydraulic engineer.

"Any time we're moving human-made chemicals down the river, it's a negative for the life of that river, for the health of the river," said Weber, co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.

"These trace compounds, we don't fully understand the longterm impact they can have on our food chain and ecosystem," he said.

Mike Crecelius, emergency management director of Fremont County, Iowa, is focused on immediate environmental concerns — from ensuring that drinking water is safe to protecting families trying to rid their homes of mold and other toxins.

He warns people not to enter the water without protection.

Omaha, for example, expected to pump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Missouri River for weeks after the flood hit. The city is working to get its sewage treatment plant back to full operation.

"There are a number of municipalities north of us dumping raw sewage into the water," Crecelius said. "There are orphan tanks floating around, with valves coming off, losing pesticides, insecticides, acids and fertilizers."

"You don't know what's in the water," he added.

Thad Nanfito, an environmental specialist at the Department of Natural Resources, has spent weeks helping Hamburg get its water plant operating again.

Hamburg leaders drilled a test well in an empty farm field to provide emergency water to the town. Hamburg remains under a boil-water order.

In late April, water workers dug into the massive berm they hoped would protect the city's main well.

"They tried to keep the plant operating, but there was just so much water, it overtopped the berm," Nanfito said.

Water has only recently receded enough that workers could reach the town's wells and water plant.

It's a painstaking process of cleaning, disinfecting, flushing lines and testing. They must replace damaged equipment and contaminated water lines.

"We want to bring everything back the way it was," Nanfito said.

It's also work that private well owners will have to do, with the help of county public health officials.

"Floodwaters can bring a lot of nitrates, E. coli and other bacteria," said Broughton, of the Department of Natural Resources. Floods can also damage septic tanks and sewer systems.

Fremont County recently helped two dozen families test their wells, using chlorine to kill contaminants. Mills County, Iowa, estimated that it could have up to 300 wells to test, both in the flooded area and nearby.

"We're really worried about private wells, and that people have access to good drinking water," said Sheri Bowen, theMills County public health administrator.

Because of breaches, "levees are no longer protecting us from river water that's flowing into our area," Bowen said. "We're worried about what will be left behind when the water's gone."

A massive pile of debris burned in Hamburg recently at one of two designated sites residents can use as they start cleaning out their damaged homes.

A loud pop startled AlisonManz, a Department of Natural Resources environmental specialist, as she investigated a large blue plastic barrel in the blaze.

The state has issued an air-quality exemption in Hamburg that allows debris such as furniture and clothing to be burned in the disaster area. It will be especially helpful in getting rid of mounds of corn stalks, trees, limbs and other vegetation that the river carried into towns, Manz said.

Excluded are hazardous materials such as asbestos that can be found in shingles, insulation and other construction debris.

Residents have faithfully separated debris for collection, Manz said, setting aside construction materials, appliances, electronics and hazardous household waste such as paint and cleaning supplies.

Farmers, elevators and businesses also must destroy river-contaminated grain, most likely by applying it to the land, returning some nutritional value back to the soil. They can burn it or landfill it.

In Mills County, Bowen said residents are concerned about what's being burned.

"We're monitoring those burns, making sure safe decisions are being made," she said.

Broughton, of the Department of Natural Resources, agreed. The agency wants to keep hazardous materials out of burn piles.

But, he added, it's important that residents are able to quickly dispose of damaged clothes, furniture and other possessions that filled their homes.

"If we have debris lying around for a long time, we have concerns about disease and rodents and other scavengers getting in there and spreading problems," he said.

"It's a balance. We want to protect people and the environment."

Flooding has caused some livestock operations to report manure overflows and spills.

"We had concerns about producers' ability to maintain the health of those animals because of lack of access," Broughton said.

"It becomes a much bigger problem if we have dead animals to dispose of," he said.

But many producers were able to continue operating through the floods, bringing food and other supplies in by boat and avoiding animal losses.

A flock of turkeys in Sac County, Iowa, was destroyed after inland flooding. The producer composted the birds on-site, Broughton said.

Manz said Iowa environmental officials will visit pig, cattle and other animal feeding operations in the Missouri River floodplain to see if facilities were damaged.

Broughton said the agency has seen few fish kills from flooding.

"The impact to fish and aquatic life will be from the sediment and debris," he said. "There's a lot of dirt pushed into the waterway that makes it difficult" for them.

On a levee north of Hamburg, Heath and Pritchard, the EPA onsite coordinators, said contractors experienced with disaster work are testing containers where they find them to determine what kind of materials they're working with.

More in-depth tests are conducted at a rest stop the EPA is using to store orphaned tanks. It's filled with all sizes of tanks, totes and containers.

The work can be dangerous. For example, a 15,000-gallon tank containing some phosphoric acid had to be neutralized before it could be removed.

Recent statistics show that the crew has picked up about 645 tanks. The crews are assigned to the job through July 31.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.