The Battle of Chef Menteur

July 7, 2006

The movement to close a New Orleans landfill presses on

By Ana Pardo
source: Reconstruction Watch
Thursday July 6, 2006

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NEW ORLEANS – More than two months ago, the controversial Chef Menteur landfill opened for business in New Orleans East. Several protests, a few legislative actions and one failed temporary injunction later, landfill opponents say they’re just getting warmed up.

A mile from the landfill, the clergy house at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in the Village de l’Est neighborhood is bustling with activity. Home to Rev. Vien Nguyen and the heart of the area’s burgeoning Vietnamese community, the house has served as a base of operations for community reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last year. It’s also headquarters of Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, an organization formed shortly after the storm to tackle cleanup and restoration of residents’ homes and lives. For the past several months, much of the group’s energy has been devoted to fighting the landfill.

Next door to the Bayou Sauvage Federal Wildlife Preserve, the landfill began operations in April. Mayor Ray Nagin used emergency powers given to him after the storm to suspend zoning regulations and grant the private corporation Waste Management a permit to operate the facility. More than 1,000 Vietnamese-American families live within a couple of miles of the landfill and use the water from an adjacent canal for gardens that supply the community with bitter melon, sugar cane and vegetables.

Chef Menteur is designated as a construction and demolition (“C&D”) debris site, meaning the landfill is not required to have a protective liner. That worries the landfill’s neighbors and environmental advocates. They note that Louisiana expanded the definition of C&D debris after Hurricane Katrina to include materials such as chemically treated wood and pliable asbestos. They are also concerned that hazardous materials other than those allowed by law are making their way into Chef Menteur, posing a potential for groundwater and surface water contamination.

Regulators have acknowledged the potential toxic contamination threat from storm-related waste. David Romero of the Environmental Protection Agency said he would consider it “lucky” if even 30 percent of the hazardous material was removed from the waste stream. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said in an interview with CNN last October that hazardous materials were hidden “like toxic needles in a haystack” in the hurricane debris. However, LDEQ now asserts that the risk of hazardous materials being dumped at the Chef Menteur site is insignificant, and that current sorting practices are adequate to keep hazardous waste out of the landfill.

“We are practicing curbside segregation, where household hazardous materials are being separated and handled differently than the rest of the waste,” says Bijan Sharafkhani, LDEQ’s administrator of waste permits. “Then at the landfill, spotters go through the waste to pick out and separate hazardous materials.”

Nguyen contends that these measures aren’t enough. “We went in one day at the beginning of the process,” he says. “Despite the fact that they had already combed over the surface, we were still able to find some things that were quite alarming, among them a canister of copier developer, batteries and some bags labeled hazardous waste.”

Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network assembled an independent panel of experts that includes a former LDEQ secretary and scholars from local universities to assess the landfill’s toxicity. Despite repeated requests, however, Waste Management has refused to allow the experts to conduct tests, instead only letting them view the debris from a bus on the edge of the site and inspect piles of debris waiting to be dumped.

“Mayor Nagin promised that if they found toxic materials in the landfill it would be shut down the next day,” Nguyen says. “That’s why DEQ is not allowing our people to conduct tests.”

Sharafkhani maintains that independent testing would prove nothing. “Say they did a test and found high levels of a toxin—what does that tell you?” he says. “It doesn’t tell you anything, because it doesn’t mean that the toxin is going to get out of the landfill site.”

The 30-foot deep pit at Chef Menteur was constructed in a wetland, where groundwater lies anywhere from one to four feet below the surface. While LDEQ claims that the walls and bottom of the pit are solid clay and thus offer protection from leaching, core samples documented in a decade-old permit application for the site contained significant amounts of silt and sand.

“The borings we have indicate eight to 15 feet of clay,” Sharafkhani asserts. “Our chief geologist came and did a visual assessment and was satisfied that what was there was sufficient.”

LDEQ says the Chef Menteur landfill is necessary for swift removal of debris from devastated areas of the city. But LEAN attorney Joel Waltzer says the operation is driven more by economics than necessity. He points out that Nagin issued the landfill permit on the same day Waste Management signed a contract giving 22 percent of the proceeds from Chef Menteur to the city. Waltzer also notes that the site charges $5 per cubic yard while the other two area landfills, Highway 90 and Gentilly, charge $2.50 and $3.50 respectively.

To date, efforts to close the landfill have been unsuccessful. LEAN filed for a temporary injunction on April 21, the day after the facility opened. A judge denied the motion, citing concerns it would set the stage for future jurisdictional conflicts over waste disposal. In response, LEAN along with other environmental, religious and civil rights groups held a raucous protest at New Orleans City Hall on May 10. Nagin responded by suspending landfill operations for three days. In addition, a bill to close the landfill was submitted by state Sen. Joel Chaisson (D-19) and made its way out of the Senate, but it was killed last month in the House Environment Subcommittee.

Besides working to shut down Chef Menteur, LEAN is researching alternatives to improve the rate of hazardous material recovery and reduce the volume of debris entering landfills. One strategy called hub and spoke collection involves sorting the waste at staging areas before hauling it to the appropriate landfill facility, allowing greater recovery of recyclable materials.  Another suggested change is nighttime hauling, which would reduce congestion caused by dump trucks during peak traffic hours. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA endorse those suggestions.

Meanwhile, the movement centered at Village de L’est continues to gain momentum. At a national convention last month, the Presbyterian Church endorsed the anti-landfill position of Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, as did the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Also last month, Piyachat Terrell, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, visited the community and mediated a stakeholders meeting between  community representatives, LDEQ, New Orleans municipal government and Waste Management.

Nguyen remains optimistic about victory for the landfill’s opponents. “I hope [officials] have enough sense to see that support for the movement is grower faster than anyone could have anticipated,” he  says. “If they go ahead and shut it down, it’s one less thing for them to worry about.”

Ana Pardo is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

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