HAMBURG, Iowa — 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 on-scene 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 hazardous materials.
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 propane, anhydrous ammonia and fertilizer tanks.
The cleanup work will last days for some, weeks and months for others.
The same kind of work lies ahead in Davenport 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 impacts, 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, estimating that the floods impacted as many as 40 facilities in Iowa.
Even though 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 long-term impact they can have on our food chain and ecosystem,” he said.
Mike Crecelius, Fremont County’s emergency management director, is concerned about immediate environmental concerns — from ensuring 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 water resource recovery facility back online.
“There are a number of municipalities north of us dumping raw sewage into the water. There are orphan tanks floating around, with valves coming off, losing pesticides, insecticides, acids and fertilizers,” Crecelius said.
“You don’t know what’s in the water,” he added.
Thad Nanfito, an Iowa DNR environmental specialist, 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 order.
In late April, water workers used an end-loader to dig into the massive berm they hoped would protect the town’s main well.
“They tried to keep the plant operating, but there was just so much water, it over-topped 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, the DNR senior environmental specialist. Floods also can damage septic tanks and sewer systems.
Fremont County recently helped two dozen families test their wells, shocking them with chlorine to kill contaminants. Mills County estimates 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, the Mills 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, one of two designated sites residents can use as they start cleaning out their damaged homes.
A loud pop startles Alison Manz, an Iowa DNR environmental specialist, as she investigates 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 household hazardous waste such as paint and cleaning supplies.
Farmers, elevators and businesses also must destroy river-contaminated grain, most likely applying it to land, returning some nutritional value back to the soil. They also can burn or landfill it.
North in Mills County, Bowen, the public health director, said residents are concerned about what’s being burned.
“We’re monitoring those burns, making sure safe decisions are being made,” she said.
Broughton, the senior DNR official, agreed. The agency wants to keep hazardous materials out of burn piles.
But, he added, it’s important 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 was destroyed following 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 assess 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. There’s a lot of dirt pushed into the waterway that makes it difficult” for them, he said.
On a levee north of Hamburg, Heath and Pritchard, the EPA on-site 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 completed at a rest stop that 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.
The crew started along Interstate 29, removing containers so workers could begin cleanup and repairs.
EPA coordinators work to track the containers’ owners, so they can be returned.
People also will stop by the rest area, trying to claim the tanks. They need proof, so someone doesn’t take off with property that’s not theirs, Heath said.
DNR’s Broughton said the agency will continue working with local businesses to assess what chemicals have been lost.
And they’ll talk with local officials to identify areas where unwanted materials have accumulated.
“Once they get into their facilities and start cleaning them up, we’ll work closely with them on what they had and what they lost,” Broughton said.