Measuring the environmental impact of America's tornado season

By Laura Brown - 02 Jun 2011 12:51:0 GMT
Measuring the environmental impact of America's tornado season

2011's tornado season in America has already had a devastating impact. In Joplin, Missouri, the worst tornado in over a generation in the US has killed at least 139. Winds of over 200 mph destroyed 8,000 structures. Homes, schools, hospitals, offices have been flattened. But as the population of Joplin and the emergency services measure the more immediate impact, the environmental consequences of the tornado are already being taken into account.

In late April, the town of Hackleberg was hit by an F5 tornado. It did not garner as many international headlines yet 75% of the town has been destroyed and the death toll stands at 18. The town is already further along than Joplin in measuring what effect the tornado has had on the environment and ecosystem.

The path of destruction left by the tornado saw buildings and man-made structures ripped apart. Many of those in Hackleberg and also Joplin, were built before regulations controlling the use of lead paint and asbestos were brought in, causing fears of contamination of the waterways, as well as soil. The downing of electrical transformers runs the risk of leaking carcinogenic oil and the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

Many companies that housed chemical plants and the like have sent representatives to affected areas to help in the cleanup. In the aftermath of Joplin's tornado an Anhydrous Ammonia leak at the Jasper Products Trucking Company had to be sealed.

This is before considerations of soil erosion, water pollution and flooding risk contamination.

In 2007, the town of Greenberg was hit by a devastating tornado. The rebuilding efforts offered the opportunity to create a greener and more sustainable town, featuring wind turbines and more ecologically sounds buildings. Yet the most significant environmental impact has been the dramatic drop in population. Left with no homes or jobs, half of Greenberg's population left the beleaguered town.

Back in Alabama, officials are asking residents to monitor environmental impact and report any issues. In Joplin, environmental rules have been released, allowing the handling of substances like asbestos and lead paint to help with the clearing effort. Environmentalists have agreed with the relaxation.

"The last thing you want to do when a community's dealing with a situation like this is require a lot of permits and paperwork," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

People in the Joplin area aren't the only ones who should be on the lookout for contaminated materials, said John Snow, a University of Oklahoma meteorology expert. Research has shown that tornadoes can suck up debris and deposit it up to 200 miles away, he said.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany-SUNY however has warned against the reckless disposal of debris.

If plastics, asbestos material or treated wood find their way into brush fires, they could produce emissions particularly dangerous for people with asthma or respiratory diseases, he said.

"I know there's a huge amount of debris, but finding a landfill in a valley someplace where you can put it and cover it over is a lot wiser than burning it," Carpenter said. "There are health hazards associated with burning debris of any sort."

Top Image Credit: © Chris White