A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle

May 15, 2006

Lori Waselchuk for The New York Times

A bulldozer moved debris during the weekend at the Chef Menteur landfill at the eastern edge of New Orleans.

Article Tools Sponsored By

Published: May 8, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, tens of thousands of hurricane-ravaged houses here rot in the sun, still waiting to be gutted or bulldozed. Now officials have decided where several million tons of their remains will be dumped: in man-made pits at the swampy eastern edge of town, out by the coffee-roasting plant and the space-shuttle factory and the big wildlife refuge.

Skip to next paragraph

Hurricane Katrina

Go to Complete Coverage »


Uproar Over Katrina Landfill

Video: Uproar Over Katrina Landfill

New Landfill in New Orleans

Map: New Landfill in New Orleans

Lee Celano for The New York Times

Boys played basketball on a street less than two and a half miles west of the recently opened Chef Menteur landfill.

But more than a thousand Vietnamese-American families live less than two miles from the edge of the new landfill. And they are far from pleased at having the moldering remains of a national disaster plunked down nearby, alongside the canal that flooded their neighborhood when Hurricane Katrina surged through last year.

Environmental groups are also angry, accusing local and federal officials of ignoring or circumventing their own regulations, long after the immediate emergency has ended. The same thing happened after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, they warn, and that dump ended up becoming a Superfund site.

The new landfill, known as Chef Menteur after the highway that borders it, sits across a canal from Bayou Sauvage, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country, with 23,000 acres of marshland, canals and lagoons that are home to herons, egrets, alligators and, in the fall, tens of thousands of migratory ducks.

Nonetheless, the landfill lacks some of the safeguards that existing dumps do, like special clay liners. The government says they are not needed because demolition debris is cleaner than other rubbish.

Residents and environmentalists think otherwise, because after Hurricane Katrina the state expanded the definition of construction and demolition debris to include most of a house's contents, down to the moldy mattresses and soggy sofas.

"It's essentially the guts of your house, all your personal possessions," said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer representing landfill opponents. "Electronics, personal-care products, cleaning solutions, pesticides, fertilizers, bleach."

State officials say that the new landfill is safe and that they are simply moving quickly to protect public health and the environment, using techniques that did not exist 40 years ago. The new site was chosen to speed up the cleanup, they say, because the debris will not have to be hauled far. The state estimates that 7.2 million tons of hurricane debris remains to be cleaned up; the Chef Menteur landfill will take 2.6 million tons.

"You cannot rebuild until you clean up," said Chuck Carr Brown, an assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which provided a permit for the landfill. "I'm still in the eye of the storm."

The state has agreed to do some extra monitoring of groundwater, Dr. Brown said. But it has determined "there's nothing toxic, nothing hazardous," he continued. "There will be no impact" on the community, which is sometimes called Versailles.

Like so many disputes that have erupted since the hurricane, this one involves some highly charged issues: politics, money, history and race. Not to mention a highly developed distrust of government that almost all Louisianians now seem to share.

Unlike most residents of eastern New Orleans, the Vietnamese have returned, rebuilt and drawn up elaborate plans for their 30-year-old community's future. Now they feel unwelcome, said the Rev. Vien thé Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church and a leader in the fight against the landfill, which opened on April 26.

"They're threatening our very existence," Father Vien said of the government agencies that approved the dump site, which residents fear will tower 80 feet or more above their neighborhood, dwarfing the new church they are planning to build, once the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers are gone from the site.

Father Vien said he was particularly worried about the quality of water in the canal and the lagoon that run through the neighborhood of tidy brick houses. Residents use that water on the tiny waterside gardens that supply the community with sugar cane and bitter melon and Vietnamese varieties of vegetables, he said.

He and his parishioners are particularly angry at Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who in February used emergency powers to waive zoning regulations for the landfill.

"Maybe we're not the right kind of people he wanted to return," Father Vien said. Neither the mayor nor his staff responded to requests for response to the priest's comments.

The state and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is handling cleanup in the city, say that without the dump, the cleanup would take much longer. The existing dumps would not be able to process all the debris fast enough, officials say, and are too far from the blighted buildings.

Skip to next paragraph

Hurricane Katrina

Go to Complete Coverage »


Uproar Over Katrina Landfill

Video: Uproar Over Katrina Landfill

New Landfill in New Orleans

Map: New Landfill in New Orleans

And the need for the new dump will only increase, they say, as the cleanup progresses. Maurice Falk, the corps official in charge of the cleanup, said at a federal court hearing last week that only 115 houses have been demolished so far.

Given that slow pace, critics question why the landfill had to be opened so quickly, before environmental studies were prepared and the community was consulted. The community would be willing to negotiate a compromise and do its part in the cleanup of the city, said Kelly H. Tran, who lives in the Vietnamese enclave and with her husband runs a construction company that has been fixing damaged houses.

But, she continued, "It's not fair for us to have no voice in this big decision, this critical decision."

State officials said they had reviewed the site for a landfill in the past, when political opposition had blocked it, and now simply could not wait two or three months to get through the public comment period. But on April 28, after the opposition was in full cry, the state and the corps put out a notice soliciting public comment on the landfill.

If residents or opponents "have something we missed, we'll address it," said Mike D. McDaniel, the secretary of the State Department of Environmental Quality. As for those who argue that there is no emergency involved, he disagrees. "Some people can't seem to understand this is not business as usual," he said.

Environmental groups are not happy. Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said government agencies in the region had never been vigilant about complying with environmental regulations but had been especially lax since the storm. This attitude is most apparent, he said, when it comes to landfills. In nearby Plaquemines Parish, a longtime dispute over a landfill has flared up because the dump is taking in Hurricane Katrina debris.

And sparring continues over the Old Gentilly landfill, an old-fashioned, unlined dump that the state closed in 1986 but reopened after the hurricane. It is now accepting a limited amount of debris after a suit was filed by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, one of the groups represented by Mr. Waltzer, and it was criticized in a report commissioned by FEMA.

The fight over the new landfill is by no means over, Father Vien said. On April 27 he was showing visitors the site — and admiring the alligators gliding through the adjacent Maxent Canal — when he got the news from Mr. Waltzer that a federal judge had refused to issue a temporary injunction against the dump.

At first he seemed stunned. "I cannot believe that," he repeated several times.

Then he rallied.

"The game is not over," he said. "It just started, actually."

One Response to “A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle”

  1. GrafxExtreme Says:

    It is too bad that the government doesn’t realize how much of a mess they create when they’re cleaning up another mess. Your photos were very vivid and appreciated.

    Locally, we have a corporation coming into area to create Ethenol. Sounds good in the surface. However, they’re going to a small town and wanting to use most of the water. They tell our locals that this won’t effect them.

    It’s true, it won’t effect the corporation. It will only effect the families that live there. Since most of the people of the town live substantially above the water table and the corporation has set themselves below near the water table.

    Already we have people having to invest $25k and more to drill new water wells. Water pressure is disappearing. Like your landfill, not very well thought out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: