The road to the Vietnamese community of Village de l'Est travels the length of New Orleans East, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina. For miles, the Chef Menteur Highway is flanked by blasted strip malls and destroyed neighborhoods, full of derelict buildings that have yet to be demolished two years after the storm.
In contrast, Village de l'Est is a vision of freshly painted houses and tidy flower gardens. The citizens returned and rebuilt their houses long before the residents of other similarly devastated areas. The last FEMA trailer park in Village de l'Est, across the street from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, will be dismantled this fall.
But the neighborhood's revival is marred by several unwelcome additions: After Katrina, the city opened two landfills by emergency decree, and contractors illegally dumped piles of debris into vulnerable wetlands. Almost all of the detritus from New Orleans' thousands of demolished houses now surrounds this Vietnamese community.
"It's a preposterous situation," says Reverend Vien The Nguyen, the local pastor. "This is one of the communities that has recovered the best, but we are the ones who have to shoulder that burden."(78)
In April 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued an emergency zoning order, allowing the company Waste Management, Inc. to open a landfill on Chef Menteur Highway without going through the usual permitting procedures. The dump site is bordered by the Maxent Canal that the Vietnamese residents use for fishing and aquatic gardening. Residents were horrified to learn that rainwater and groundwater seeped into the landfill, mixed with toxic building materials and household chemicals, and was eventually pumped by Waste Management into the canal.
A federal audit later revealed an unseemly agreement that allowed the opening of the Chef Menteur site. The city issued a zoning waiver to Waste Management in exchange for a 22 percent share of the landfill's profits.(79) Auditors from the Department of Homeland Security concluded that because the federal government was reimbursing Waste Management for the costs of debris disposal at the time, the city was essentially helping itself to an unauthorized federal grant. This tit-for-tat arrangement infuriates Nguyen. "It was money that drove the situation," he says.(80)
The Vietnamese community, joined by several environmental groups, mounted a grassroots campaign to get the dump closed. They pressured and embarrassed the mayor during a tight reelection race, and in August 2006, Nagin issued a "cease and desist" order to shut down the Chef Menteur site.
That same month, Waste Management sued the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), demanding the reopening of the landfill, and arguing that the company had a "vested right" to continue operating the site.(81)
A federal judge rejected its claim in October of 2006,(82) but the fight over Chef Menteur isn't finished. Nguyen says that the permit issued to Waste Management required the company to restore the land to its original state if it failed to get a permanent permit to operate the site. In Nguyen's opinion, that means the company should remove every scrap of debris it deposited, and remediate the soil. Instead, the company has proposed covering the dump with a synthetic liner and three feet of dirt. "We'll go back to court if we have to," says Nguyen.(83)
The second permitted dump in New Orleans East is no less controversial and it is still operating. The Old Gentilly landfill was opened in October 2005 on top of an old landfill that state regulators had shut down in the 1980s. It quickly became the busiest dump in the region, and by March 2007 had generated $33 million in fees(84) for its operators, local companies Metro Disposal Inc. and AMID Landfill LLC.
But environmentalists and local residents worried about piling new debris on top of the old landfill, an unlined pit that holds many hazardous substances that are no longer allowed in landfills. The weight of the added debris, which can be stacked to a height of 25 feet, might force contaminated water out of the landfill and into the ground water, environmentalists said. Even FEMA appeared concerned. The agency commissioned an independent report on whether the site might someday be deemed a Superfund hazardous waste site. The federal government could be "exposed to a high risk of future environmental liability," the report concluded.(85)
In May 2007, several community groups sent a letter to the city planning commission arguing that the Old Gentilly landfill was operating without a proper permit. "When it closed in the 1980s, it lost its conditional zoning permit," explains Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club's Louisiana chapter. "We're arguing that it's illegally open at the current time, and we're trying to get the city council to vote to shut it down."(86)
No Receipts Necessary
There is no debate over the illegality of dumping along Almonaster Boulevard. Once a scenic drive, the East New Orleans road is bordered on both sides by fringes of cattail rushes and cypress trees, standing in water painted bright green by floating plants and algae. But now, the landscape is dominated by walls of rusty cars, pulled out of flooded New Orleans neighborhoods and stacked on top of each other. This road near Village de l'Est is the epicenter of illegal dumping, a problem that existed before Katrina, but grew drastically worse after the storm.
The state DEQ has recently cracked down, dragging toppled school buses and shipping containers across the driveways that branch off Almonaster Boulevard, and blocking access to the wetland dumps. But the agency has had only limited success in identifying and bringing charges against the dumpers. Some of the violators are small-time demolition workers avoiding the fees at permitted dumps. But in at least two cases, state authorities have identified dumpers as sub-contractors for larger companies that have received big contracts from FEMA and the Army Corps.
One of the least obvious, but possibly the most important, casualties of the storm lies beneath the streets of New Orleans - a shattered sewer system, with flooded pumps and miles of broken pipes. For most of the city, this qualified as an icky problem with possible public health ramifications. But for one man, it was a chance to help a friend cash in.
Broadmoor LLC, a large Louisiana construction firm, won an Army Corps contract to do part of the demolition work on the old army barracks that serve as headquarters for the Louisiana National Guard. (The entire demolition and reconstruction effort for the barracks will cost $200 million;(87) Broadmoor received an undisclosed piece of that contract.) Broadmoor then subcontracted the debris removal to Hamp's Enterprises, a local New Orleans company.(88) The drivers for Hamp's filled up their dump trucks at the barracks, then brought their loads to a huge, illegal dump off Almonaster Boulevard that covers roughly 20 acres, thus saving their company thousands in dump fees.
Another prime contractor, Nationwide Restoration Services, LLC, received a $2 million FEMA contract to dispose of debris from 35 flood-damaged public schools that the school district hoped to reopen quickly. Nationwide subcontracted some of the work to Shamrock Demolition Waste Haulers, which dumped more than 8,000 cubic yards of debris at another illegal landfill. The DEQ has estimated the clean-up cost at $500,000.(89)
Confronted with evidence of their subcontractors' misdeeds, both prime contractors stressed that their contracts specify that all debris must be brought to legal landfills that meet all state and federal requirements. However, the president of Nationwide admitted to the Times-Picayune that subcontractors were not required to produce receipts from permitted landfills, but were paid based on how many loads they hauled away.(90)
Harold Leggett of the DEQ's office of environmental compliance says that he expects to find more instances of illegal dumping used to cut corners on government contracts, but said the complex system of prime and subcontractors makes it difficult to figure out whom to blame. "That's the process we're in the middle of," Leggett said. "We have to work our way through that contracting hierarchy."(91)
Back at the Catholic Church, Reverend Nguyen says he's glad the DEQ is improving its enforcement. But he wishes the agency would also work on cleaning up the illegal dumps that they've shut down. "We don't want heaps of garbage to be the landmarks in our neighborhood," he says.(92)
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