July 13, 2008

After the Flood, What Happens to the Sandbags?

The Mississippi River is retreating, but millions of sandbags remain from efforts to keep floodwater off farms and out of homes.

Someone has to haul off the thousands of tons of sand piled along streets and levees. It won't be the National Guard, which worked tirelessly to stack the bags but isn't coming back to haul away the sand.

That leaves counties, towns and levee districts to handle the chore. For example, Lincoln County officials plan to hire contractors for the job. The cost is not known. A big task will be the removal of the 4-foot-high wall Guard members erected June 27 in an effort to protect part of Winfield.

Alan Dooley, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said more than 13 million sandbags were used to fight flooding in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois.

Although the sand might be unsuitable for children's sandboxes, it's OK to handle, he said.

"It's not a hazardous waste, per se, but you've had floodwater on it," he said.

The bags are made of a poly material that deteriorates after a few weeks of exposure to sunlight, Dooley said.

The standard sandbag-removal method starts by driving a front-end loader over the sandbag piles to break the bags. Remnants are removed, and the sand is hauled off.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the sand was often suitable for making concrete or for spreading on roads during winter storms. Uncontaminated bags may be put in landfills.

The West Central Development Council, of Carlinville, Ill., expects to get a U.S. Labor Department grant to hire 40 to 50 people in Jersey and Calhoun counties to remove flood debris.

Mike Sherer, the council's deputy director, said Friday the preferred hires are restaurant employees, farmers and others temporarily put out of work by floods.

"Removing sandbags will probably be the first job," Sherer said.