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Removing debris in southern Mississippi could take 5 years

BILOXI, Miss.—It may take as long as five years to get rid of the mountains of garbage that Hurricane Katrina created in Mississippi's southern counties, waste management experts said.

Some of the garbage is so compacted that wood can't be separated from asbestos, propane tanks, sewage, rotting meat and hazardous waste, and may end up going to landfills that aren't prepared to handle such toxic refuse.

Louisiana will have to deal with its own trash issue once the flooding from Katrina recedes.

Rough estimates indicate that the six hardest-hit Mississippi counties may produce more than six times the solid waste that the entire state generates in a year.

"It's more debris than all the debris companies in the world could handle," said Frank Reddish, the manager of the bureau of recovery and mitigation for Miami-Dade County, which has dealt with its share of hurricanes. "It's going to start to stink and rot and have rats."

Reddish was still cleaning up debris piles a year after Hurricane Andrew, which affected only the southern half of Dade County when it struck in 1992.

When Katrina hit the Mississippi coast, it destroyed entire neighborhoods, major bridges and businesses. Mark Williams, the administrator of the Mississippi Solid Waste Division, said Federal Emergency Management Agency models indicated that Mississippi would have 35 million to 50 million cubic yards of debris.

Stacked in a football field, the debris would tower 2 { to 3 { miles high. "But that may be low because I don't think FEMA models have ever seen anything like this," Williams said.

He added that the state probably will allow "some things environmentally that we normally would not allow because we've just got to get this state back on its feet."

Usually, hazardous materials such as asbestos must be separated from other building materials. But Williams acknowledged that that might not happen. At least one city, Biloxi, has discouraged residents from flushing their toilets and encouraged them instead to place plastic bags in the toilet, then discard the bags with their garbage. That will send raw sewage to landfills, which usually isn't allowed.

"The reality is pathogens that end up in fecal matter often end up in a landfill anyway," said Dennis Truax, a civil engineering professor at Mississippi State University.

Truax, who has helped design south Mississippi landfills, said modern landfills could handle "virtually anything."

The state also has set up a task force to look for ways to recover fallen timber for use in factories with boilers, Williams said.

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(Duncan reports for The Macon Telegraph.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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