BY SANDY THEIS
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Where there was once water, now there is mud.
But it is mud sometimes mixed with chemicals from flooded factories, parts of vehicles, construction materials and memorabilia swept from homes and businesses by the Flood of '97.
Environmental experts are now offering advice on what to do with the muddy mix.
''Disposal issues are one of the more pressing problems we have right now,'' said Dennis Evans, a spokesman for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
After on-site evaluations and an aerial inspection, state regulators have decided to treat much of the debris as ''demolition debris,'' a classification that allows for disposal in municipal landfills, said Melissa Patsiavos, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).
If local officials need to dispose of flood-related muck in solid-waste landfills, state and local solid-waste fees will be waived, she said.
OEPA officials are advising locals to separate out all toxic, flammable or explosive materials - if possible - and dispose of them separately, she said.
State regulators also plan to relax certain open-burning restrictions.
Air permits still will be required, but OEPA will expedite them and relax some of the standards, she said.
Any technical questions can be addressed by OEPA district offices, health departments or solid-waste districts, Ms. Patsiavos said.
Complicating the disposal problems is the volume of debris, Mr. Evans said.
At the height of the flooding, towns along the Ohio River turned into lakes, with church steeples and rooftops often the only fixed structures poking out from the coffee-colored waters.
With backhoes and tractors, federal, state and local officials have begun clearing debris from roadways and bridges.
As people begin to return to their homes, they are generating additional waste from the mud and sludge shoveled out of homes and businesses.
Cincinnati-area officials met Friday with landfill operators to discuss how local sanitation districts can best dispose of the influx of waste, said Tim Ingram, commissioner of the Hamilton County General Health District.
While details will be up to individual municipalities, residents are urged to separate out large items such as appliances and dispose of smaller items through their regular trash services.
Special construction and demolition landfills will accept much of the waste, he said.
Some municipalities will set up drop-off sites with large disposal bins that will be emptied into landfills, he said.
''This county has 32 units of government in it, and each community is kind of taking care of its own people,'' Mr. Ingram said.
By early next week, he expects local communities to announce whether they will have drop-off places and if so, where the bins will be located.
Don Maccarone, director of the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), and County Commissioners John Dowlin and Bob Bedinghaus met with officials of major residential and business haulers Waste Management, BFI and Rumpke - as well as representatives of several construction-demolition landfills - to discuss the cleanup.
''It's very complicated, but, in short, we decided where the anticipated increase of debris is going to be taken,'' said John Leach, a Rumpke spokesman who attended the meeting at the Hamilton County Health Department.
Mark Curnutte contributed to this story.