June 13, 2006
Katrina Cleanup Sparks Fear of Toxic Trash
By Peter Henderson
NEW ORLEANS -- A Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans fears that Hurricane Katrina is spawning a second tragedy as waste from the storm is dumped in a neighboring wetlands landfill.
The debris from the last major storm to hit the city, 1965's Hurricane Betsy, was stored in a dump that became a "Superfund" toxic cleanup site, shorthand in the United States for an environmental disaster that was costly to eliminate.
Opponents see history repeating.
"When it becomes a Superfund site, the country is going to pay for the rest (of the cost), while we pay with our lives," said Rev. Vien Nguyen, a Catholic priest and opposition leader, on a recent look at the new "Chef Menteur" landfill in east New Orleans.
The state Department of Environmental Quality absolutely rejects any notion that Chef Menteur is unsafe and argues it will speed up the cleanup of the city by three or four months.
"There is no comparison" to the Betsy waste site, said Chuck Carr Brown, state assistant secretary for environmental services.
The Betsy site took all types of trash and was made before most modern environmental regulations, while Chef Menteur takes construction debris and is closely monitored, he said.
Site operator Waste Management Inc. points out that a faster cleanup means safer streets for New Orleans.
Those streets are still full of trash more than nine months after the storm hit, killing more than 1,500 and flooding 80 percent of the city. Katrina produced 22 million tons of construction debris statewide, enough to fill the Superdome football stadium more than 13 times.
WIDENED DEFINITION OF DEBRIS
To expedite disposal, the definition of construction debris was widened to include asbestos, furniture and much household non-toxic waste. That reflects the fact that shells of houses are bulldozed and carted away.
Still, it worries landfill opponents.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which gave the permit after approval from the state, look for a non-wetlands site or at least put a liner over the clay bottom of the pits.
In a letter to the Corps, the service's Louisiana Field Office Supervisor Russell Watson argued that the waste would surely include household chemicals, pesticides and other contaminants.
"Placement of such materials in an unlined landfill, particularly within coastal wetlands, could potentially result in leaching and resultant persistent contamination of ground water, surface water, and adjacent wetlands habitats," he wrote.
Waste Management and the state both say the waste trucked in is carefully watched by government and company employees.
Politicians are debating the issue, while environmentalists failed to score a restraining order on dump operators. State and city officials and the Corps of Engineers say the process continues.
Rev. Nguyen and environmentalists want to test the trash but have not been able to agree with government officials and Waste Management on how to do it.
Beyond what is in the pit, the two sides disagree about whether the pit needs an artificial lining. The state says the natural clay bottom is 10 to 15 feet deep, more than enough.
But Paul Templet, a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State University who used to head the state Department of Environmental Quality, disagrees.
Chef Menteur was a poor place put waste, he offered. "That is a formula for disaster," he said.