Environmental Restoration: Quiet Heroes Appear in the Wake of Disaster
When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked in New York City on September 11, 2001, when an EF-5 tornado carved a path of destruction through a mile-long stretch of Joplin, when flood waters destroyed New Orleans – Environmental Restoration was there to clean up what was left behind by Mother Nature.
Founded in 1997 by a group of five managing partners in St. Louis, Environmental Restoration is a remediation contractor that provides services to federal, state, and local agencies, and private sector clients nationwide from regional offices throughout the United States and Canada.
“We’re the largest disaster response company in St. Louis that no one has heard of,” says Tom Fuhrhop, senior project manager.
Debris left behind by a disaster or accident can’t always just go into a trash can or, ultimately, to the landfill. Solid waste can include everyday trash, but many items left in the wake of a disaster contain components that make them hazardous and unsafe to place into a landfill. Items such as white goods (appliances including refrigerators, washers, and dryers), e-waste (computers and electronics), and liquids (paints and household chemicals) cannot be placed into commercial landfills due to chemicals that may leech out into the groundwater and contaminate the surrounding area. For example, when white goods are scrapped, they need to be neutralized by having the Freon taken out of them and any valuable metal removed for recycling or reuse.
Yard waste, such as limbs and fallen trees, cannot go into landfills because of their size, weight, and bulk, so they must be recycled or disposed of in other ways. Environmental Restoration has a team of experts who handle this type of cleanup.
Separate divisions within Environmental Restoration handle different tasks. The commercial emergency response division is different from the government division, which handles assignments from the EPA and contracts for those jobs. Environmental Restoration has become the largest EPA response contractor in the country.
When a large truck accident occurs on a roadway, the debris and any spilled gasoline or oil has to be expertly removed. The Environmental Restoration staff is trained in the safest ways to remove this waste to prevent potential ground and water contamination. The scenario is not as rare as you might think. Environmental Restoration receives about six calls for assistance every day from all across the country.
Environmental Restoration also responds to smaller scale accidents at private businesses and companies that require specialized cleanup. Annually, the company cleans up about 1,700 hazardous material accidents nationwide, and emergency crews are available to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Acts of God and Terrorism
Larger scale disasters include tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, explosions, and acts of terrorism—all of which require skilled expertise in the cleanup process. When something big happens, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency issue a mission or task assignment, and a team is dispatched. Some of the high profile events Environmental Restoration is been involved in include:
- Hurricane Katrina
- Hurricane Sandy
- the Joplin tornado
- the Greensburg tornado
- several Missouri floods, including 1993
- the Columbia Shuttle explosion
- the BP oil spill
- the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
- Anthrax decontamination at the Senate Hart Building in Washington, DC
“The World Trade Center site could be compared to a semi-truck cleanup” says Dennis Greaney, president of Environmental Restoration. “But instead of two hours to clean up, it was more like two months and you send your most senior guys who have tons of experience. Ground Zero was a lot of asbestos and hazardous material that needed to be cleaned up, and we had the expertise to do it.”
When the World Trade Center towers fell, hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic debris were spread across Lower Manhattan. Environmental Restoration immediately dispatched a team to NYC for cleanup.
When the Shuttle Columbia exploded above Texas in 2003, the recovery of hydrazine across two states required a specialized team from Environmental Restoration. Teams are highly trained to respond to any possibility, no matter how unlikely.
Those are the high profile cases. But what about debris that’s left behind from floods and tornados and heavy storms? The household cleaners and paints left among the rubble can’t go into landfills.
“We do disaster response specific to debris and hazardous waste removal,” says David Brinkmeyer. “The staff at ER has been through extensive OSHA training to be able to respond to any situation in a safe manner.”
“Safety is out number one priority,” Dennis says. “We make sure our folks are properly trained and ready to go and respond wherever we are needed.”
Jobs with the company range from engineering, chemists, project management, CDL truck drivers, and many more. The company is always looking for good workers who are willing to take on the demanding jobs required by this line of work. Traveling across the country is one of the benefits of being part of the team. However, Dennis thinks his workforce in Missouri is among the best.
“I don’t say this just because we are located here, but the Midwest has the best labor force I’ve worked with,” says Dennis of the 410 employees nationwide. “Honestly, we have some great workers in our company and we wouldn’t be the success we are without them. We do a lot of niche things and need the staff to support that.”
When Environmental Restoration isn’t cleaning up after disasters, the company is constantly bidding on clean up and remediation projects.
ER can collect the waste and debris from a site and then work with a local waste collector, such as Republic Services, to dispose of it. They can also work with communities to do curbside pick up of specialized waste.
“Every effort is made to recycle or salvage any usable items and minimize what goes into the landfill,” David says.
The crew that works with local cleanup consists of around 65 people, including 25 on household hazardous waste and 40 on debris. These crews spend a lot of time cleaning up “orphan containers,” items that have been picked up by a flood and washed up somewhere that they need to be picked up and taken away.
The employees at Environmental Restoration seem to be just fine being silent heroes in the community, cleaning up what has been left behind in the wake of accidents and disasters. But when you need them, they want you to know they’ll be there and ready to get to work.