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A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle
By Leslie Eaton
The New York Times
Monday 08 May 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.
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.
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."
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