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Oklahoma County disposing of environmentally hazardous tornado debris

Oklahoma County highway crews are working to keep potentially hazardous tornado debris from harming the environment. Debris is sorted or burned in a pit outside Harrah.

BY JOHN ESTUS Modified: May 24, 2010 at 6:00 am •  Published: May 24, 2010

HARRAH — The microwave and toaster sitting on the crushed Chevrolet’s hood came from a kitchen that is nowhere to be found.

The lawn mower wrapped around the tree was in a shop that’s now a scrap metal heap.

The mangled fishing boat in the field? Hurled there from a storage spot hundreds of yards up the dirt road.

"These are all the pieces of our life,” Steve Johnson said, gazing across his eight-acre family homestead that was ripped apart May 10 by a tornado.

The family has spent the past two weeks looking for anything salvageable.

It’s clear they’ll have to drag most of their things down the dirt road for Oklahoma County tornado debris collection crews to haul away.

"It’s just a reverse of the old saying — what was one man’s treasure is now one man’s trash,” said Myles Davidson, special projects coordinator for Oklahoma County District 2, one of many agencies involved in the weeks-long tornado debris removal process.

Some household items turned to trash by tornadoes can cause environmental hazards if not disposed of correctly, so county officials are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Quality to run an environmentally conscious tornado debris burn pit outside Harrah.

Most pieces of the Johnson family’s life soon will be there.

Sorting it out
Burning debris is one of the easier parts of the pickup process. Sorting out what can’t be burned is more complex. It’s a lot like sorting laundry, only with heavy machinery and hazardous materials.

Among the items in the debris pile Wednesday were a Santa suit, tripod, power tools, tin roof, DVD players, fence posts, gas grill, couch cushions, a plastic newspaper delivery box, a fuse box and hundreds of tree limbs, trunks and roots. County highway workers were using bulldozers and excavators to comb through the debris and place it in piles for proper disposal.

The trees and other vegetation are about all that’s burned in the pit.