Ice Storm Cleanup: Roadside clearing moves up the priority list
(from Maine Townsman, March 1998)
By Michael L. Starn


Brush removal along roadways is one of those tasks that municipal public works crews are usually assigned during the spring and early summer when they have nothing more pressing to do, like plowing snow or attending to muddy roads. This year, because of the Ice Storm of ’98, municipalities will no longer be able to put roadside cleanup on the backburner.

The magnitude of what faces municipalities in the cleanup of the ice storm is now being fully realized. Normally, cleanup from weather-related disasters floods, tornadoes, hurricanes starts immediately after an event occurs and continues until everything is restored. This winter’s devastating ice storms (as people in the southern part of the state know, there were two) were different in that the initial cleanup was just the first phase of the restoration.

During and immediately after the storms, attention was focused on restoring power, clearing roadways, and repairing structural damage to houses and other buildings. Residents who tried to clean up their yards and many public works departments that tried to clean up the debris along the roadways quickly found that the stuff was frozen to the ground and that they would have to wait until spring before any further cleanup could be done.

TWO PROMINENT QUESTIONS

Spring is now upon us and municipal officials are entering phase two of the ice storm cleanup. Many questions confront them, but two appear to be the most prominent. Will there be curbside pickup of residential debris? Will the town contract out its roadside debris or use municipal employees?

Residential Pickup

Municipalities are somewhat split over the question of whether or not to pick up residential storm debris. It’s not that municipal officials don’t want to help out their residents; other issues complicate the decision.

One deterrent to providing residential pickup is that handling just the municipal debris will be a massive job. Adding residential debris on top of that is a daunting task. Another determining factor for municipalities is whether or not they regularly provide a spring cleanup. Those that routinely have spring cleanup are gearing up for a (much) larger than normal cleanup. Those that don’t ordinarily provide the service are less inclined to provide residential pickup of the ice storm debris.

An incentive to picking up the residential debris is that the feds and state will pay 90% of the cost once the debris is brought to the roadside. Of the eight towns that the TOWNSMAN contacted for this article, four said they would be picking up residential debris (neatly piled at roadside), two were not sure if they were going to pick it up, and two said they would not be providing that service.

Norway Town Manager David Holt says town officials there would like to pick up residential debris but because of the severity of the storm in Norway, they aren’t sure that they could manage it. Holt is estimating total, municipal cleanup costs from the storm to be in the $400,000 range.

Contracting Out

Whether or not to contract out the debris collection and disposal may be a "no brainer" with the federal government (FEMA) picking up 75% of the cost and the state (MEMA) picking up and additional 15%.

From those municipalities contacted for this article and from what has been reported in Maine newspapers, private contracting appears to be the way most communities intend to handle the cleanup.

If a municipality chooses to use its own equipment and employees, FEMA will reimburse an hourly rate on the equipment but will only pay overtime for regular employees and the full cost of part-time employees. Regular pay for full-time municipal employees is not reimbursable.

Municipalities intending to use municipal employees or hire part-time help may want to consider purchasing new equipment. Municipalities that are in the market for a wood chipper, for example, could purchase it now and have FEMA pay for the equipment’s use during the storm cleanup. Also, some equipment dealers may be willing to lease or rent equipment with an option to buy, and substract the rental fee from the purchase price. Either purchasing or lease with the option to buy could substantially reduce the municipality’s outlay for the equipment.

Another consideration for those contemplating purchase of a wood chipper is that all of the ice storm’s debris will not be picked up this spring. A municipal wood chipper would probably get a lot of use over the next few years. Residents will continue, for some time, to haul brush and other debris from the ice storm to the municipality’s solid waste facility, and don’t rule out future ice storms, especially when you consider the type of winters Maine has had in recent years.

Livermore Falls Town Manager Ruth Marden says her town is more fortunate than most municipalities affected by the ice storms because: (1) the ice storm caused only moderate damage in town, when compared to some of the surrounding communities; (2) there are a number of paper mills in and around the town and therefore a lot of loggers with equipment who can be hired; and (3) there’s a biomass plant right in town.

"We’ll use pulp trucks and stockpile it at the transfer station," says Marden. Then the town will contract to have the brush pile chipped and sent to the local biomass plant. The town is planning a May 4 through 15 townwide cleanup. The town has 37 miles of local roads to clear.

OPTIONS FOR ROADSIDE CLEARING

Most municipalities, as previously mentioned, do not put a high priority on spring time brush clearing. That’s because usually there isn’t that much brush to remove, and generally if you don’t get to it this year . . . there’s always next year.

But, as every municipality hit by the ice storms knows, this year’s roadside clearing can’t wait until next year. There is just too much brush and debris to remove. Debris that is impeding drainage could cause flooding and road damage.

In terms of roadside cleanup, the choice appears to be either stockpiling the brush at a town or state (MDOT) site or chipping it alongside the roadway.

The advantages to stockpiling are full (90%) reimbursement for collection and disposal, faster processing with tub grinders, recycling credits, and reuse of the processed materials for such things as composting and recreational trails.

The major disadvantages of stockpiling are the extra transportation cost involved in picking up loose debris, and the lack of adequate space for stockpiling at local solid waste sites.

While chipping along the roadside is slower than tub grinding, transportation costs are minimized. Roadside chipping does allow for blowing the processed wood into trucks and then taking the material to a biomass facility or reusing it (composting, landscaping, trails, etc.). The other way to chip is just to blow the material back along the roadway or into the woods, saving on transportation costs and providing nutrients to the soil.

Those communities that elect to chip along the roadside will need to pay close attention to work zone safety issues. MDOT’s Local Roads Center has a booklet available that provides guidance on work zone safety procedures. Another safety concern is for employees or hired personnel handling power equipment (see article on page 28).

ESTIMATING CLEANUP COSTS

The TOWNSMAN surveyed a few of the communities that were hit hard by the ice storm and found that most were unable to give a specific estimate of the amount of brush that needed to be cleared, but in the few communities where the town officials had done some preliminary estimates, the numbers were startling.

In Winthrop, Town Manager Chuck Roundy calculates 12,000 cubic yards of brush along the 57 miles of town road (he astutely points out that there are actually 114 miles of roadside to clear because a road has two sides). His original cost estimate was $187,000 to clear the debris. After some internal tightening of the numbers and after a meeting with FEMA representatives, who had done their own visual inspection of Winthrop’s roads, estimated project costs were set at $150,000.

The town had already submitted a $100,000 bill to FEMA for damages incurred during and immediately after the storm. Most of that money went to pay the public works and public safety overtime costs and for the depletion of the town’s salt-sand pile.

Yarmouth, hit hard by the second ice storm, had to deal with about 5,000 cubic yards of debris, according to Public Works Director Bill Shane. Shane says because of mild temperatures and some immediate attention to the problem, the town was able to collect about 2,000 yards of the debris within a week or two of the storm. "We have about 3,000 yards left," he says.

Yarmouth has been stockpiling and tub grinding its storm debris, and PWD Shane has found all kinds of uses for the material. The town has a wastewater plant sludge composting facility that needs an amendment. Yarmouth also has as leaf and yard waste composting site. Then, there’s the recreational trails these wood chips are great for erosion control and erosion stabilization. And, the town gets recycling credits to boot.

DISASTER ASSISTANCE

FEMA’s disaster relief policy for municipalities is pretty straightforward. The policy is that "FEMA pays 75% of a municipality’s eligible storm related damage costs."

The cost sharing on eligible storm damage costs is 75% federal (FEMA), 15% state (MEMA), and 10% local. Full reimbursement will be made to a municipality if it contracts out the work; municipalities that use their own crews are reimbursed fully for overtime and part-time help but do not get reimbursed for the regular time of municipal employees. Municipalities that use their own equipment are reimbursed at the FEMA rate. FEMA also reimburses a municipality if it has to rent equipment. However, it should be noted that FEMA’s equipment reimbursement rate may not cover a municipality’s actual cost.

FEMA requires a Damage Survey Report from each municipality seeking reimbursement. If estimated damages on the DSR are below $47,100, FEMA pays 100% of its reimbursement upfront. If estimated damages are over that amount, FEMA pays roughly a third of its anticipated reimbursement upfront and then pays the balance when the project is completed.

Two areas where the TOWNSMAN heard conflicting reports on FEMA policy implementation was in how project costs are estimated and whether or not an allowance should be made for normal spring cleanup in estimating project costs.

Winthrop’s Chuck Roundy says that his FEMA representative presented the town with a cost reimbursement schedule of $4 per cubic yard for stacked brush and $6 for scattered brush. It may be that these figures are just for estimating purposes and that final project costs will still be reimbursed. Roundy, and other municipal officials, view the cost estimating as a "negotiation" between town officials and FEMA reps.

Yarmouth’s Bill Shane says that his FEMA rep is now saying that the normal spring cleanup costs will need to be deducted from the storm-related spring cleanup, assuming they are done together. Shane says this was not his understanding of FEMA’s reimbursement policy when he first discussed it with agency officials.

Municipal officials are working with a number of different FEMA reps. In order to have a better understanding of FEMA disaster relief program policy as it relates to these ice storms, municipal officials may want to consider the following points:

Municipalities that have responsibility for cleanup along federal aid highways are eligible for assistance from the Federal Highway Administration. The Maine DOT will be handling the paperwork for this assistance. Reimbursement Agreements have been sent out by the MDOT to the 38 municipalities (must be over 6,000 pop.) that have federal aid highways that they are responsible for maintaining. A municipality cannot be reimbursed (for the same work) from both the Federal Highway Administration and FEMA.

PUBLIC SAFETY/ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Expecting that a lot of people will choose to burn their brush, local fire officials will need to consider the fire safety implications and take appropriate steps to minimize the forest fire threat.

Tom Parent of the Maine Forest Service says that one-third of all forest fires each year (or roughly 300) result from people burning brush. He says that the Forest Service would hope that people find other ways to dispose of their debris, such as chipping.

If people decide to burn, Parent suggests that they get to it quickly. He says that early spring (before mid-April) is the best time to burn. He is also concerned about the prospect of inexperienced people burning brush this year people who have never needed to burn brush in the past.

Parent advises local fire wardens and fire chiefs to be sure that those issuing fire permits go over the requirement for open burning very carefully with the person getting the permit. "Be very clear about the community’s expectations," he says.

Fire chiefs will want to evaluate their department’s ability to manage the potentially large amount of open burning this spring, says Parent. Restricting the issuance of permits is largely left up to local fire officials. For public safety reasons, fire chiefs may want to consider limiting the number of permits issued per day.

For environmental protection reasons, staff from the Maine DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality would prefer that municipalities and citizens burn their brush only as a last resort.

"DEP is encouraging alternative uses (chipping or grinding) of the material," says Jim Brooks, director of the Bureau of Air Quality.

Layton Carver, also with the Bureau of Air Quality, says that open burning in the more urban municipalities will be difficult without creating a nuisance.

Mike Parker, with DEP’s Solid Waste Division under the Bureau of Hazardous Material & Solid Waste Control, says that the ash left over from burned brush (municipal or residential) would not have to be tested as long as it is kept clean. In other words, other types of debris should not be mixed with the brush.

Municipalities can only stockpile and burn at a DEP licensed solid waste facility, according to Parker. Ash will need to be removed from the burn site, but Parker says it generally can be scooped up and put in the local transfer station.

Individual landowners who choose to burn can just spread their ash on the ground near the burn site, Parker says.

LEGAL ISSUES

According to MMA’s Municipal Roads Manual, municipal officials have the authorization under 23 MRSA, section 2702 to remove shrubbery and bushes within the limits of town ways. Notwithstanding 30-A MRSA sections 3281-3284 which deal specifically with public shade trees, "a municipality may at its expense remove healthy or dead trees located within the right-of-way if they pose a safety hazard to the traveling public or impede the municipality’s ability to maintain the road," notes MMA’s Roads Manual.

The manual advises municipal officials that for trees located within the right-of-way that pose no safety hazards, the municipality is under no duty to remove them even if the abutter requests removal. Trees outside the right-of-way, the manual cautions, should not be removed by the municipality without the landowner’s permission. The municipality may cut limbs or roots which intrude into the right-of-way, even if the trunk of the tree is outside the right of way.

MDOT has adopted a special policy for its ice storm cleanup for dealing with trees that are growing outside the right-of-way but leaning into it and threatening the safety of the traveling public or the proper operation of roadside drainage systems. Marc Guimont, head of MDOT’s Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, says that normally MDOT work crews would contact property owners to seek their permission to remove such trees. Given the magnitude of the ice storm cleanup, MDOT’s policy for these types of situations will be to trim the trees only to the right-of-way line, unless they get a specific request from the property owner to go further. Even then, MDOT will trim or remove only trees or limbs that threaten to fall into the highway right-of-way.

Other legal concerns related to the ice storm cleanup for municipal officials include liability coverages for contracted labor, and proper licensing and/or certification for employees doing specific types of work. Make sure that all workers, both municipally-hired and contracted ones, are insured for workers compensation. People working within 10 feet of power lines must be OSHA certified. Certain types of tree removal may require the services of an arborist.

SIDEBAR:

MDOT Sites for Municipal Brush Disposal

The Maine Department of Transportation is expecting to have about 24 brush disposal sites available around the state for municipal brush disposal. Municipalities can only take untreated wood debris to these sites. Municipal officials should contact the MDOT division offices for information regarding the locations, hours of operation and other details of these ice storm debris sites. Sites in the following towns have received final approval and are now available to receive municipal brush debris:

MDOT DIVISION SITES

Ellsworth: Sedgwick, Gouldsboro, Topsfield, Pembroke

Bangor: Charleston, Carmel, West Enfield

Rockland: Searsport, Washington, Topsham, Montville, Knox

Scarborough: Shapleigh

Dixfield: Sabattus, South Paris, Waterford, Buckfield

Municipal officials will need to let the MDOT divisions know who will be trucking the town’s debris to these lots. The sites are not open to the general public. Municipal officials should stay in touch with their MDOT division officials to find out when additional sites are approved.