Neighborhoods around New Orleans and elsewhere across Louisiana -- many in predominantly minority communities -- are facing toxic threats from dumpsites that have cropped up or expanded in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Environmental advocates detailed the growing problem in a hearing held earlier this week by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works titled "Moving Forward After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."
The problem of construction and demolition ("C&D") debris disposal is enormous in storm-affected areas. In testimony before the committee, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Mike McDaniel reported that Katrina and Rita generated more than 62 million cubic yards of debris -- enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome more than 10 times. And more is on the way: While 12,000 storm-damaged homes have been demolished to date, about 30,000 additional homes are slated for dismantling.
In order to accommodate all that waste and make its disposal easier, LDEQ expanded the definition of C&D debris after the storms to include previously-excluded substances such as asphalt, sheet rock, furniture, carpeting and even asbestos-contaminated materials. Reclassified, these materials were no longer confined to more protective municipal waste landfills, which must have liners and leachate collection systems. Wilma Subra, president of an independent environmental consulting firm and a leader of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, testified about the problem this change presents:
Allowing disposal of C&D waste in unlined landfills has been based on the theory that this waste would not produce toxic leachate or gas emissions. This theory ... has proven to be incorrect even with respect to ordinary C&D waste. It is certainly not true with respect to mixed hurricane waste.
And at the same time LDEQ was allowing more toxic waste to be mixed in with construction waste, the agency rushed to permit new C&D landfills, raising the ire of some nearby residents.
They included Rev. Vein The Nguyen with the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Roman Catholic Church and an activist with Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, a coalition of local faith-based, community and environmental organizations that successfully fought for the closure last year of the nearby Chef Menteur Highway landfill, a mixed C&D site opened after the storm. Located near a predominantly Vietnamese community, the facility threatened to contaminate a canal that runs through the community and is used to water traditional vegetable gardens. Nguyen said in his testimony before the committee:
During our struggle against the Chef Menteur Highway landfill, the community has learned populations throughout the region are dealing with the same issues with Hurricane Katrina debris. ... Furthermore, landfills have usually been created near minority communities which neither have the organization, the voice, nor the resources to fight for their rights to an equal, healthy environment. The Industrial Pipe Landfill in Oakville, Louisiana is a blatant example of this environmental injustice. The waste pile at this landfill is only fifty feet away from the edge of an historic African American community. Flocks of seagulls constantly hover over the waste pile and fire has broken out more than once even though it supposedly only contains inert matters. The forty-foot waste pile has occasionally collapsed and fallen into Oakville residents' backyards. The community has been fighting against this landfill for seventeen years to no avail. After Katrina, the Industrial Pipe Landfill took in storm debris which included rotten freezers and refrigerators. Now a horrible stench fills the air. Industrial Pipe's latest violation documents a fish kill of 5,000 by an illegal discharge of water. LDEQ has given no opportunity for a public hearing on the settlement of this issue.
Unpermitted landfills are another major problem. LDEQ has documented over 200 illegal dumpsites throughout the state. In addition to three major legal landfills in New Orleans East, there are 23 illegal dumpsites and 13 illegal automobile junkyards in the area -- all of them in environmentally vulnerable wetlands. One illegal dumpsite -- an old composting facility -- has been on fire for more than a year, said Nguyen, who faulted government agencies for shoddy oversight and undemocratic processes:
Before and after Katrina, the lack of enforcement by state agencies, local entities and the lack of a comprehensive solid waste management policy which strongly focuses on recycling, reusing, and reducing before dumping into landfills; and the absence of meaningful venues for community participation have all contributed to the grave environmental problems Louisiana has been facing and that hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought to the surface today.
Nguyen offered a number of recommendations to improve post-disaster waste handling in the future and protect the environmental health of Louisiana residents. They include establishing a multi-stakeholder committee to advise federal officials on disaster debris issues and create an environmentally sound waste-management plan, asking the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers' Inspector General investigate debris removal and siting policies and whether any federal laws were violated by Corps contractors, and getting federal support to help state agencies investigate illegal dumpsites and prosecute those responsible. Concluded Nguyen:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were natural catastrophes which wreaked a lot of unavoidable havocs. They become tragedies when people create additional avoidable harms to their communities and their environment. We believe that the U.S. Congress ... can assist in reversing some of the avoidable harm caused."