June 27, 2006
Toxic debris near homes
The United Church of Christ through the generosity of its members and friends funding Hope Shall Bloom is working with local partners in New Orleans to address the removal and containment of toxic materials. For more information visit Save East New Orleans.
A landfill near one New Orleans neighborhood has residents and community activists in an uproar. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) opened the Chef Menteur Landfill several months ago for hurricane debris. The landfill is one mile from the New Orleans East community, and residents are fuming over the way they've been treated during the process. Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East (CSNOE) formed because of its proximity to heavily populated areas and because residents believe the rules are too lax. CSNOE joined the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) to form a united front against the landfill and both groups say the potential health effects of the landfill are not worth a faster cleanup.
"(The LDEQ) has amended policy to allow in this landfill anything from within four walls of a home," said the Rev. Nguyen The Vien, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East. Vien also works with CSNOE.
The Chef Menteur Landfill is exempt from the public safety protections required at other landfills, according to the CSNOE. "Household waste....is normally placed in a Municipal Solid Waste landfill, complete with synthetic liners, leachate collection systems, groundwater monitoring systems and other protective measures. LDEQ has allowed this debris, if it is inseparable from other debris...to be placed directly into the ground, without a permit, without community input and without the protections found in modern landfills," indicated a press release.
Putting anything from inside a house into a non-lined landfill is a disastrous plan, Vien and CSNOE said, because items like microwaves, refrigerators, televisions and computers contain hazardous materials not meant for a non-lined landfill. Vien's neighborhood has a very large population of Vietnamese families, many of whom heavily use the canal running through the neighborhood for watering lawns and gardens. He also worries that trucking all the debris through his neighborhood will negatively affect air quality.
According to the legal decision allowing the Chef Menteur Landfill to be created, the site will not allow "white goods (domestic and commercial appliances) and putrescibles (bacteria- encouraging items), hazardous, liquid, infectious, industrial, commercial and residential wastes."
Yet CSNOE points to an October CNN interview with an Environmental Protection Agency official saying only about 20 to 30% of those materials can really be filtered out from the debris. The landfill is separated from a wildlife refuge by an 80-foot canal, added Vien, so it impacts natural habitat as well. "Our concern is the household chemicals that will end up in the landfill," he explained. "This is dumped into a 30-foot pit in a wetland without any lining. They're dumping it directly into a water table."
The LDEQ and New Orleans city officials argue that this "Construction and Demolition" landfill is required to help New Orleans recover more quickly since so many tons of hurricane debris remain in the city. According to the Chef Menteur legal decision, LDEQ needed this landfill "to expedite the removal and disposal of the remaining (Construction and Demolition) hurricane-generated and demolition debris associated with demolition activities in the area in and around Orleans Parish and particularly in the Ninth Ward area."
The legal document also states that "the gravity of the emergency situation created by Hurricane Katrina has required regulatory flexibility and a consideration of the timeframe for debris removal."
Local residents have a number of problems with those statements. Vien thinks his community was unfairly targeted for this landfill, that the city is allowing the landfill because the city gets money from the operator, and that the landfill is unnecessary because space remains at other landfills.
"The thing we have to look at is, I believe that every community needs to shoulder the burden of the debris - at least the amount we have generated," he explained. "The problem is that we are shouldering all the burden while the benefit goes to everyone else. Our community is the fastest returning community. We've gutted more than 1,100 homes here already. 1,700 residents out of 4,000 have returned permanently. The canal that landfill is next to goes through our community. It's a question of environmental justice."
Vien takes issue with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin lifting zoning rules for the landfill - saying that he did that because landfill operator Waste Management promised some revenue generated by the landfill to the city. He and CSNOE also blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the controversy, both for not requiring a hurricane debris dumping permit due to the "emergency" of Hurricane Katrina and for claiming Chef Menteur is a cheaper waste site because other already-permitted landfills are too far away.
The LDEQ offered a 30-day comment period when the landfill was proposed, but community leaders said their concerns and ideas were not heard. From a CSNOE release, "If the City would allow temporary debris storage sites, the debris could be collected curbside during the day by small trucks and brought to central locations. From there, huge trucks can more efficiently haul the debris at night. This 'hub and spoke' method is preferred by both the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Corps and would speed up the overall cleanup of New Orleans. As there is plenty of capacity at these already existing facilities, this new facility would not be needed."
LDEQ officials are on site at the landfill to monitor the dumping and any potential hazards until June 14 according to a mid-May LDEQ statement. When questioned about whether inspectors are still there, an LDEQ spokesman said the inspectors are now at the five landfills around New Orleans until further notice. "There is no timetable for pulling them out," said the LDEQ's Rodney Mallett.
Vien and CSNOE have asked the LDEQ and Waste Management if they can bring in their own experts to test landfill runoff and soil for any leaching and hazards, but have been refused. "We wanted to test it, but Waste Management and LDEQ objected to it," he said. "They instead proposed that our experts watch the debris dumping process at the site, but we were not allowed to leave the bus we were on to observe. They required that due to safety and environmental concerns. Our experts are not just regular guys off the street - they are professors at (Louisiana State University), one is a former LDEQ secretary and one is an environmental engineering department head. Yet Waste Management was concerned that these guys didn't know how to protect themselves."
Vien said he knows Waste Management and the LDEQ wouldn't let them test because of what they would find.
The residents say they will continue to fight because they believe it's a matter of environmental justice and public health. "Why here and not elsewhere? Is it necessary?" questioned Vien. "Some say yes because it speeds up recovery - but at whose expense? There are other ways, other fully lined landfills not near the wetlands and us that have the capacity for Katrina and Rita combined."
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