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Greene County Storing Tornado Debris At Fairborn Wetland Park

Cemex Reserve in Fairborn is being used to store organic tornado debris.
April Laissle
Cemex Reserve in Fairborn is being used to store organic tornado debris.

Thousands of trees were downed during a massive outbreak of tornadoes on Memorial Day. In the weeks since, cities have struggled to figure out where to put all that debris. In Greene County, much of it sits at Cemex Reserve in Faiborn, a public wetland park off Garland Avenue. Some residents say they're worried the giant pile of debris may be impacting the environment.

The park is just a short walk from LaCY Dufrene’s house in a subdivision called the Sanctuary. She usually runs along the path in the morning because she loves all the wildlife she sees along the way. 

“You can cut through the park [on] their beautiful paths through the woods,” she says. “And I see beaver, deer. And back here, before the storms, I counted over 30 species. I wrote down their little descriptions.”

A massive pile of tree limbs and brush now sits along the treeline at the back of the park. Its size is staggering.  Debris is stacked at least two stories high. Construction crews have been working on top of it, rearranging the pile. 

Dufrene says a ranger told the neighborhood that the park would be used to store some debris from the tornadoes temporarily.  She says she was initially happy with that solution. She wanted to help victims of the storms. But she started getting concerned when she saw just how many debris trucks were coming everyday. It became clear the pile would sit in the park longer than just a few weeks.

“I was worried less about the stuff and more worried about what I was seeing as consequences," says Dufrene. "When you see 30 species or so of birds the week before and then you start seeing nothing and you see nests abandoned [...]” 

Greene County Administrator Brandon Huddleson says the county made the decision to dump organic debris in Cemex Reserve because they were running out of options. The tornadoes downed thousands of trees, and their designated yard-waste facility in Xenia was filling up quickly.

"So we started to look at all of our assets and we looked at something that was relatively close to the disaster zone and something that was as far out of the way and inobtrusive to people as we could find. And Cemex Reserve checked all those boxes."

Huddleson says they’re not storing debris in the wetland, but in the parking lot and along the treeline. On its website, FEMA advises municipalities against dumping directly into wetlands or rare ecosystems.

Huddleson acknowledges that there still may be some disruption to wildlife, but says the county had to use the park in order to qualify for FEMA assistance.

“One of the requirements is that this is stored on government owned property. So we weren't able to go out to a defunct shopping center for instance somewhere and use that land. I would have loved to have been able to avoid using the parks but we really had little choice.”

The Ohio EPA says an inspector has visited the Fairborn site and determined it complies with EPA guidelines.
Credit April Laissle / WYSO
The Ohio EPA says an inspector has visited the Fairborn site and determined it complies with EPA guidelines.

Right now, Huddleson says they’re using construction equipment to stack the debris higher and make space for more. Some officials say it could be months before the last debris load is dropped off, though others say it may be much earlier. Eventually, the plan is to turn the debris into mulch, remove it, and reopen the park.

"We anticipate absolutely no harm, no change to the wetland. And we have pledged to put that park back into the condition that it was in before we started storing debris there," says Huddleson.

At this point, it’s unclear if long-term environmental impacts may result from the debris pile.   

Sam Romeo, an environmental educator and naturalist with Aullwood Audubon Society, says bird populations in the area could fluctuate for a variety of reasons, including severe weather. But he also says he’s concerned that the debris could disrupt the insect life cycle.

"If you have a lower insect population, you know the rest of the food chain above that is going to be affected," says Romeo. "These wetlands and these birds are used to a certain level of insects. And once you kind of put a down a blanket of trees and debris and disturbance on top of that, that is absolutely going to affect the insect population and everything down the line from that is going to be affected as well.”

Dina Pierce, with the Ohio EPA, says an inspector has visited the site and determined it complies with EPA guidelines. The agency does recommend staging debris on public lands, in part because it helps “avoid potentially costly or complicated” private property leasing. 

"It's an emergency situation, and that certainly is what takes precedence here. We have to ensure public safety and get the cleanup under way," says Pierce. "And like, I say this is temporary. They're not dumping it in the wetland, and it's not going to be just left there. It will be eventually removed."

LaCY Dufrene says she feels bad about complaining about all this. She knows people who lost their homes in the storms, and she’s afraid her concerns will come off as petty. But she says she felt compelled to speak up because she doesn’t want this to happen again. 

“All this loss people are going through, and yet we’re allowing the storm to cause us to lose more,” she says. “We're losing our environment. We're going to have these tragedies. Let's come up with smarter processes that are better for the environment that still take care of people but that are smarter long term.”

Brandon Huddleston, with Greene County, says they plan to review their procedures and discuss potential improvements later in the recovery process.