The logistics of cleaning up New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are almost beyond comprehension.

Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality says some 15,000 houses are slated to be torn down, and demolition is the likely fate of 80,000 more. As a result, DEQ estimates, the city will ultimately truck off and dispose of some 20 million cubic yards of waste.

Where will it go? To a number of landfills in the region, most of which are designed to handle hazardous materials. But to speed the process, the city converted a deep pit located amid the wetlands of eastern New Orleans into a landfill in April. The thinking was that using this close-in area — called Chef Menteur, after an adjacent highway — would speed the clearing of ruined homes, and blaze a faster road to the city’s recovery.

Opening a new landfill at the edge of a major city would normally require elaborate permitting and public comment, but Mayor Ray Nagin signed an order bypassing the usual process. The Chef Menteur was slated to accept some 2.6 million cubic yards of waste; if that goal was reached, a mountain of debris would rise eight stories over the wetlands, as well as a nearby neighborhood of low-slung brick homes.

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The landfill started accepting trucks filled with waste immediately. Reaction — to Nagin’s order and the dumping that followed — was swift. The landfill sits across a canal from the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States, the 23,000-acre Bayou Sauvage, provoking the ire of environmentalists in the region. And some 1,000 Vietnamese-American families who live in a nearby neighborhood called Versailles rallied opposition as well. Their community has been among the most active in rebuilding since the flood, yet those who returned found themselves coping not only with their own personal disasters, but with the prospect of toxins making their way from the landfill through their neighborhood.

Joel Waltzer, an attorney who worked with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to oppose the landfill, puts it simply. The Chef Menteur, he says, has made “a second disaster out of the first one.”

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From Mad to Worse

The Chef Menteur was never designed to be a landfill. It was an open pit created when construction companies excavated sand to use in their projects. It isn’t lined with clay to prevent toxins from leaching out, nor was it set up with a system for detecting any leaching that might occur.

“Whatever you put in it leaks into the water table, which is hydraulically connected to the groundwater,” says Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant and Superfund site expert based in New Iberia, La., 125 west of the Big Easy.

The DEQ claims that the landfill is intended only for non-toxic demolition debris, and that steps have been taken to keep hazardous materials out. But Subra says the wholesale demolition of homes in New Orleans leaves much to be desired when it comes to sorting.

The order creating the landfill allows everything within the four walls of a house to be deposited here. This includes not only decaying mattresses and rotting food, but “all the petroleum products you might have for your lawnmower, all the cleaners and the pesticides, the degreasing solvents, and toner,” Subra says. All of these things have been observed in the waste stream destined for the landfill, she reports.

Subra has spoken with debris removal crews in the field. She says they’ve been instructed to set aside any hazardous material they see on the surface of a debris pile, but to not bother with anything within the piles. Hired spotters at the landfill perch on stands and watch as the debris is dumped, but can catch only a portion of hazardous waste going by. U.S. EPA officials told CNN last October that only 20 to 30 percent of the hazardous material would likely be diverted.

Sorting out toxins from more benign debris is “not happening, and we’ve done sampling to prove that’s not happening,” Subra adds. She notes that leachate was observed coming out of the face of the Chef Menteur landfill a month after it opened.

The city and the state DEQ maintain that the landfill doesn’t pose an environmental hazard. But Waltzer disagrees. He says the environmental tests cited by officials are flawed — they were conducted shortly after the dump opened, when less than one-tenth the intended waste had been deposited. What’s more, these tests were conducted not at the main pit, but in a nearby excavation that had been diluted with rainwater. “I’ve never seen a worse case of junk science,” he says. “I don’t know how they can sleep at night.”

When One Roar Closes, Another Opens

The Vietnamese community in Versailles, where any toxins that leach out will eventually flow via canals, charge that the neighborhood was selected for a landfill because the city didn’t think the residents had the political clout to stop it.

If so, the city has been proved wrong. Led by Rev. Nguyen The Vien, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, the neighborhood quickly rallied.

The Old Gentilly landfill may be an even
bigger problem.

Photo: Louisiana DEQ

“I believe that every community needs to shoulder the burden of the debris — at least the amount we have generated,” Rev. Vien told Heather Moyer of Disaster News Network in June. “The problem is that we are shouldering all the burden while the benefit goes to everyone else. … It’s a question of environmental justice.” Protests drew media attention, which in turn shined a spotlight on the hasty opening of the landfill and its potential consequences.

In mid-July, the efforts to end the dumping appeared to pay off. Mayor Nagin abruptly reversed course on Chef Menteur, announcing that he would let expire his earlier order that opened the landfill. A backlash surfaced quickly. DEQ announced that closing the landfill would add six months to a year to the city’s cleanup, a charge disputed by landfill opponents who say that bureaucracy has set the pace of debris removal, not the proximity of the landfills. And Waste Management Inc., Chef Menteur’s operator, recently filed suit to keep the dump open. That case will be heard on Aug. 11 in Louisiana district court.

Assuming the courts uphold the closure, trucks will cease adding to this accidental monument to Hurricane Katrina on Monday, Aug. 14.

Will the story end if the trucks stop rolling in? That’s not so clear.

Even assuming the Chef Menteur landfill closes as scheduled and remediation plans are launched — highly uncertain given the more pressing needs regionwide — the larger battle to avert a local environmental disaster is still far from over.

Another unlined landfill not far away, called Old Gentilly, was also hastily reopened in the wake of Katrina and is again accepting construction and demolition waste. In many ways, this presents a worse scenario than Chef Menteur, since it was never fully sealed after being shut down in 1986. Subra says that the new dumping is already squeezing out leachate from the older dump, which is now seeping into the adjacent wetlands.

“It’s going to be a nightmare,” she says.