No matter who shovels the remains of lives into trucks, the saga of Katrina debris doesn't end there. It has to be hauled somewhere and dumped. This process has opened up new dramas in two New Orleans neighborhoods.
The Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East once known as Versailles (for the nearby housing project) has struggled to its feet with little help from any government agencies. Of the community's 53 businesses, an estimated 45 have opened their doors. Ninety-five percent of the homes have been mucked and gutted. The remarkable transformation of the neighborhood was so astonishing that a group affected by the tsunami came from Thailand in June 2006 to find out how it was accomplished so they could put those skills to work at home.
News of a landfill placed between the industrious neighborhood and the largest urban wildlife refuge in the nation, Bayou Sauvage, was an unwelcome disruption-but not a complete shock.
"If you look around the country," said local pastor Vien thÃ© Nguyen said, "every landfill is near minority people." The Chef Menteur landfill was approved by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin who used his emergency authority to suspend zoning laws in February. Critics worry that the landfill does not meet basic safety standards for dumpsites, such as clay liners to prevent seepage of toxic chemicals into the groundwater. And the site is directly between Versailles and the levee that failed and flooded the neighborhood in the first place.
The landfill is owned and operated by Waste Management Inc. (WMI), the largest commercial and household trash service provider in the United States and the largest recycler in North America. WMI is based in Houston, Texas.
The subcontractor hauling the remains of gutted and bulldozed buildings may "tip" their debris into the landfill for $5 a cubic yard. With between 7,000 and 9,000 yards being hauled into the 87 acre facility each day, WMI is earning between $35,000 and $45,000 daily in tipping fees.
"Haulers wouldn't come here if it wasn't a good value," according to WMI spokesperson Lynn Brown.
The debris contains entire houses and their contents, meaning each cubic yard might contain asbestos, bleach, pesticides, paint or any number of other potentially dangerous substances. Regulations about what could be dumped in Chef Menteur under an emergency provision by the state were much loosened in September 2005 when the first truckloads of debris began arriving at dumps and landfills. (48)
Pastor Nguyen said the establishment of the landfill seems like a "deliberate effort" to keep people in the neighborhood from rebuilding.
"This is how a self-sufficient, self-reliant community is rewarded for their building efforts?" he said.
The Vietnamese community, Nguyen said, has fought numerous Superfund sites and two other attempts to install a dump near them. The first time was in 1990, when the plan was to actually put the landfill in the wildlife refuge, and then again in 1997 when the site was slated for the spot where it is now. The dump hasn't yet gone through a full environmental review, but Brown says it will. Pastor Nguyen fears that by the time that happens, the dump will already be full.
The New Orleans Gambit Weekly reported that Nagin issued a stop work order at the dump for the final week of the closely contested mayoral campaign but the dumping resumed the day after he won reelection, on May 23. A Nagin spokesman dismissed allegations about political motives associated with the landfill, which had been protested by hundreds of Vietnamese residents on the steps of City Hall preceding the election.
Brown said that the dump on Chef Menteur is one of hundreds that have sprung up across the South. WMI, she said, has "agreed to sampling beyond regulatory requirements," although Nguyen said the methods have been inconclusive and local experts have been rejected.
The Army Corps, Brown said, inspects the waste before it gets dumped, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), along with Nagin's office, issued a statement on June 30 about environmental testing completed at the Severn Trent Laboratory in Kenner, Louisiana: "The state, local and federal agencies involved in the clean-up of New Orleans have gone to great lengths to reassure the public that these disposal sites are safe for human health and the environment," said DEQ Assistant Secretary Chuck Brown. "The city's sampling effort and the results from an independent laboratory are further proof that these disposal facilities are not toxic. The department will continue to ensure debris removal is completed in a timely and environmentally sound manner." There was some relief in Versailles that FEMA extended the deadline for debris removal from June 30 to December 31, 2006, and promised to continue funding clean-up until then.
The deadline pressure had provided the dump's defenders with an excuse, that the debris had to be disposed of quickly, and that there was no time for research into safer alternatives.
Meanwhile, in the neighborhood known as "Old Gentilly," an old landfill was reopened to accept hurricane debris. The dump had been closed a quarter-century earlier after being identified as containing dangerous levels of hazardous waste. That it was being reopened over the objections of neighbors was also not entirely a surprise.
As in the case of the Chef Menteur landfill, federal and state regulations as to what could be dumped on the Gentilly site were suspended in the aftermath of the hurricane.
The Sierra Club of Louisiana calls Old Gentilly "a Superfund site waiting to happen." (49)
None of this is new. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, New Orleans also opened an old landfill, resulting years later in federal fines for hazardous wastes and lawsuits from residents who lived in houses and whose children attended schools built on top of the site. (50)
UPDATE: Just as this report was going to press, Mayor Ray Nagin, with the Department of Environmental Quality, agreed to allow the emergency zoning order that permitted the Chef Menteur landfill to open in April to expire in mid-August. Local activist groups claim victory through long and persistent negotiation and political pressure. Waste Management Inc. is now suing the DEQ to prevent the site from closing.