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New Orleans Landfills, Prone to Flooding, Remain Controversial – and Possibly Dangerous – for City Residents

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Katrina-waste.jpg After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans needed to remove thousands of tons of debris and trash, some toxic. (Flickr/Editor B)

*This week, *The Washington Independent is featuring a series of investigative stories on the rebuilding of New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina. Find all of them here.

In the late summer of 1965 — almost 40 years to the day before Hurricane Katrina — Betsy, a Category Four hurricane, devastated New Orleans. City officials reopened a shuttered dump in the Upper Ninth Ward to collect debris and waste left by the massive flooding. The dump, which became known as the Agriculture Street Landfill, closed in 1966. Ten years later, the city covered it with dirt and repurposed it as a residential community, and mostly lower-income black families moved in. None of the residents knew they were living on a former dump. Then people started getting sick, the cancer rate significantly higher than in nearby neighborhoods.

[Environment1] For more than 30 years, environmental activists, New Orleans residents and federal and state officials have struggled with the Agriculture Street site and its periodic flooding in the hurricanes that batter the city. Since Hurricane Katrina, activists have raised broader questions about the safety of local landfills given New Orleans’ propensity to flood. Activists have also raised questions about the impact of local trash-disposal sites on low-income communities and communities of color. Five years after Katrina, in the midst of the Gulf oil spill disaster, those questions and struggles remain.

“We should have learned from Hurricane Betsy with Agriculture Street and we didn’t,” says Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans-based field organizer for the Sierra Club. “We should have learned from Katrina and we didn’t. Now we’re doing it again with the Gulf oil spill.”

“The Agriculture Street Landfill is the cautionary tale,” explains All Huang, an environmental justice attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council — but not a cautionary tale well-heeded.

It took until the mid-1990s for the Environmental Protection Agency to declare Agriculture Street a “superfund” priority site for cleanup, and until the late-1990s for the removal of contaminated dirt to start. The area had only a few years before been declared nearly cleaned up when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, devastating the Gulf coast and flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. The Agriculture Street site flooded too, leaving many homes destroyed.

Residents soon raised concerns that the flooding had dredged up toxic materials again. Soil testing conducted by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council months after Katrina found high levels of arsenic as well as “disturbingly high levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — cancer-causing chemicals from soot and many petroleum-based products,” according to a report on the tests.

But testing conducted by the EPA found that “the majority of the contaminants detected in flood-deposited sediments and soils at the [Agriculture Street Landfill] posed no apparent public health hazard to residents at the site.” The EPA concluded that flooding had not compromised the area. It took no further measures, despite outcries from environmental groups.

Over time, some residents have moved back to Agriculture Street. Advocates following the Agriculture Street case say residents living on the site, who are almost all poor and black, have no other option but to live there. “There were several people who didn’t have anywhere else to go, so they are back in the community,” Mary Williams, program manager for community outreach at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice says. “I think its criminal that they would allow these people to rebuild in a place that they know is dangerous to live in.”

Other communities face similar issues — and since Katrina, the government has undertaken no specific measures to deal with waste. Worse, the hurricanes do not just flood waste sites, but overfill them: Hurricane Katrina produced an estimated 20 million cubic yards of waste and debris, much of it sent to landfills around New Orleans.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waived certain zoning rules after Katrina to build a new landfill along the Chef Menteur highway on the eastern side of the city. The landfill is just over a mile from a large Vietnamese community. After Katrina, the community fought for New Orleans to stop adding trash to the landfill, and won. But residents say the landfill, which holds millions of cubic yards of waste, is still posing problems.

“It’s closed, but what was put in there is still in there,” says Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, a local group that has been a key voice in trying to clean up the landfill. Nguyen says waste from the landfill is leaking into the nearby Maxent Canal, which runs directly through the local Vietnamese community, one of the largest in the country. “There are many terrace gardens that elders grow,” he said, asserting that waste finds its way into the water supply.

The group is in the process of taking legal action to clear the landfill, but Nguyen says he does not expect a speedy resolution. “We don’t anticipate it to be done any time soon,” he says. In the meantime, Nguyen says Vietnamese elders in the community will continue to water their gardens with contaminated water.

Environmental justice advocates say Chef Menteur is symbolic of the way waste was dealt with after Hurricane Katrina. Split-second decisions were made to truck the waste away, in order to show progress in the recovery effort. But little attention has been paid to the potential long-term impacts, the experts say.

“Those landfills were not properly permitted and many of them were actually hydraulically connected to the groundwater,” says Wilma Subra, a chemist and president of Subra Company, which tests soil for the presence of hazardous materials. She says it is difficult to determine the long-term impacts of the landfills, as many lack monitor wells for testing for groundwater contamination. But, she believes that the “long-term impact is contamination of shallow ground water.”

Similar stories abound. The Old Gentilly Landfill, which had been shut down because of environmental concerns, was reopened after Katrina. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University says the Gentilly landfill could still pose problems for the poor black communities that live near it. “There’s no guarantee that Gentilly won’t create problems in terms of leaching into the groundwater,” he says.

Bullard says New Orleans learned too few lessons about waste from Katrina. For instance, he worries that the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved landfills for Gulf oil waste too close to communities of color.

“Once again, it’s communities of color that are over-represented in these locations,” he says. “If this kind of waste was going into white communities, it would be an uproar.”

The oil spill has created an estimated 50,000 tons of solid waste. To store it, the EPA has approved the use of nine landfills in the Gulf. Waste from the spill includes tar balls, used absorbent boom, used protective equipment as well as oiled vegetation, sand and debris, EPA said in a written statement to The Washington Independent.

The statement said the EPA tests the waste twice a month to “ensure compliance with waste and debris handling, sampling and disposal requirements outlined in our waste management plan,” which the agency released on June 29.

“The landfills being utilized by BP are state-permitted facilities that undergo state review, monitoring and oversight to ensure that this waste, like all waste streams that go to these landfills is managed in a manner that is protective of public health and the environment,” the statement said.

In addition, the statement said the EPA is working to “minimize the impacts of waste to all communities, including low-income and minority communities, by actively enforcing requirements outlined in our waste management directive, while working within the impacted states’ existing waste disposal structures.”

But Bullard’s research indicates that waste from the oil spill is being sent to communities of color. At the end of July, he wrote, “The largest amount of BP oil-spill solid waste was sent to a landfill in a Florida community where three-fourths of the nearby residents are people of color. Although African Americans make up about 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, three of the five approved landfills in the state that received BP oil-spill waste are located in mostly black communities.”

Advocates have focused their ire on the Tide Water Landfill in Venice, La. Bullard says minorities make up 94 percent of the population near the landfill. But it’s not just environmental justice issues that have led to concerns about the landfill. Advocates say the site is vulnerable to future flooding as well.

“It’s a stupid place to put a landfill. The only part of Venice that didn’t go underwater during Katrina is the top of the landfill,” says Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club. “It’s right in the middle of the marsh. It’s right at the mouth of the Mississippi River.”

Barry Kohl, president of the Louisiana Audubon Council, says the Venice landfill is also vulnerable to significant coastal erosion. “That particular site will erode in the future and the waste will be disposed of all over the coast,” he says. “It should be up on high ground so it will never be disturbed.”

Malek-Wiley and other environmentalists in the Gulf are also raising broader concerns. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, oil waste for exploration and production facilities is considered non-hazardous. As a result, the waste does not need to be stored in hazardous waste landfills. “It’s not regulated as hazardous and it goes into landfills that are not protected as a hazardous waste landfill,” he says. “There are a lot more regulations as to monitoring on a hazardous waste landfill. In a garbage dump, guys are out there in their blue jeans.”

Williams, with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, says the group is organizing to “challenge the EPA to come up with better solutions” for the waste. “It’s just really frustrating for those of us who are here on the Gulf,” she says. “We’re still trying to recover from Katrina and now the oil spill. It’s a constant battle.”

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