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Three Years On, New Orleans Still Struggles With Hurricane Debris

June 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city is still coping with the toxic debris the storm left behind. Betty Ann Bowser reports from New Orleans on the ongoing controversy over the city's landfills.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, what happens after the waters recede?

The floods in the Midwest are leaving behind a toxic soup of garbage and chemical waste in and around the Mississippi River, just as Hurricane Katrina did in New Orleans three years ago. That city is still coping with the storm’s aftermath.

Betty Ann Bowser has the story.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Have you ever wondered what happened to all that debris from Hurricane Katrina?

Much of it was taken to two landfills in New Orleans. One of them was built just a mile from a Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, and the residents there were unhappy about that.

The Vietnamese are a tightly knit, devoutly religious group. Nearly 3,000 pack the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church every Sunday morning.

Many in the community are avid backyard gardeners. Before Katrina, Thi Nguyen not only ate his vegetables; he also supplemented his income by selling some of his crop to wholesalers.

THI NGUYEN, New Orleans Resident (through translator): Before the storm, they have wholesalers from Baton Rouge, Biloxi, that come and pick up the produce on Friday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But they don’t come anymore?

THI NGUYEN (through translator): No, they don’t come anymore. They’re worried about the water in the lagoon.

Residents fear landfill seepage

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nguyen is so worried about the water in the lagoon that he no longer uses it on his garden. Instead, he uses rain he collects in big plastic drums.

He doesn't trust the water because of the nearby Chef Menteur landfill. And although the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality swears no contaminants are leaking into the groundwater, the Vietnamese community doesn't buy it.

Father Vien Nguyen is pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church.

FATHER VIEN NGUYEN, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church: We knew exactly what was going in there, because we were the ones throwing things out at the time. So everything that you could find within a home would be in there, even all the chemicals that we used in a house, in the home, would be thrown in there. So, whatever, you just name it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Father Vien's community was so incensed about the landfill that they marched on City Hall to demand it be closed down to anymore debris. In August of 2006, it was shut down.

But when Father Vien, whose church is still being rebuilt, and a group of environmentalists were allowed to walk on the site a year later, they were not reassured.

FATHER VIEN NGUYEN: We found petroleum products, a can of engine oil. We found toner liquid for copy machines. We found medical waste. We found the furniture, electronics, and old TV. And this was after the people who worked there, they admitted that they already combed the surface and put a foot of dirt on top of it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Darryl Malick-Wiley (ph) of the Louisiana Sierra Club took us on an aerial tour of the landfill. It's already partly submerged underwater, which Malick-Wiley (ph) says is an ominous sign, because the water could seep into the debris, allowing contaminants to get into the groundwater.

DARRYL MALICK-WILEY (ph), Louisiana Sierra Club: So this is all the landfill here on the left. There's 200,000 cubic yards of waste right there, and you can see how the water's already coming up on top of the cap. It's a totally insane place to put a landfill, totally.

Landfills lack liner, oversight

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The community and environmentalists say the problem with Chef Menteur is it doesn't have a synthetic liner or water-monitoring equipment. Those requirements were waived by the state after Katrina because of the sheer volume of debris.

Oliver Houck is an environmental law professor at Tulane University. He thinks that was a bad decision.

OLIVER HOUCK, Tulane University Law School: There isn't an engineer in the country who would tell you that throwing stuff that is toxic and that is hazardous into a landfill without a liner on Louisiana wetland soils isn't risky.

There isn't anybody who can come in and count the number of deaths that are going to come out of this landfill or the number of sicknesses or illnesses or people with chronic this or chronic that. Nobody can make that tally, but why run that risk?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And this is not the only landfill in the area without a synthetic liner. The second one is still active.

Hundreds of trucks line up every day to deposit debris into New Orleans' largest and busiest dump, the Old Gentilly Landfill. Closed down decades ago as a possible hazardous waste site, it was re-opened after Katrina. Truck drivers pull up to a tall tower and sign in while their load is inspected from above.

LANDFILL SPOTTER: Hey, Ryan, where did that come from?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The spotter is looking for any debris that is not supposed to be put into the landfill, things like household cleaners, batteries, tires, or other toxic waste.

After Katrina, the city had 62 million cubic yards of debris to get rid of, so the definition of what was acceptable was expanded, according to Bijan Sharafkhani. He is in charge of the Waste Permits Division at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

BIJAN SHARAFKHANI, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality: Gentilly Landfill accepts construction demolition waste that's basically what is generated from demolishing a building, bricks, mortar, concrete. In order to respond to emergencies, we expanded the definition of construction demolition to include items such as carpeting and furniture.

Some battle for total removal

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Orleans environmental attorney Joel Waltzer is especially worried that as two types of storm waste, arsenic-treated wood and sheet rock, decompose they will leech toxins into the groundwater and air.

JOEL WALTZER, Environmental Lawyer: The debris that we pulled out of our homes -- and, in particular, a lot of the furniture and the construction materials -- all of that contains arsenic.

When you put the arsenic into the ground, it acts like a giant toxic teabag that's eventually going to leech out. You put sheetrock in a moist environment, like all of southeast Louisiana is, and it breaks down into its components, which is hydrogen sulfide, primarily, which is a really nasty egg-like smell, and it's also a neurotoxin.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Waltzer says, following the hurricane, there were simply too many trucks for everything to get checked. He wants all the debris removed and put in a synthetically lined landfill.

Sharafkhani acknowledges that a small amount of unauthorized waste may have gotten into the landfills just after Katrina. But he says, over the past two-and-a-half years, the vast majority has been separated out.

BIJAN SHARAFKHANI: We have spotters. They go through the waste. They monitor it, and they pull out any unauthorized waste. As a result, we were able to recover about 22 million pounds of hazardous waste.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 200-acre landfill is surrounded by wetlands teeming with wildlife and a levee system on one side. Sharafkhani says air and groundwater samples show nothing dangerous has gotten into the environment.

BIJAN SHARAFKHANI: What we have here, we have 11 groundwater monitoring wells, just to make sure we monitor the groundwater at the site, you know, before it leaves the landfill area.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Have you had any evidence, any scientific data that shows that anything dangerous is leeching out?

BIJAN SHARAFKHANI: We haven't. We have had two years of data, groundwater-monitoring data. We don't see any difference.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's not just the legal landfills that are cause for concern. The state is also trying to deal with hundreds of illegal dump sites, places where rogue trash collectors simply drop their loads.

State environmental scientist Jeff Dauzat took us to an illegal dump site filled with debris from the public school system.

JEFF DAUZAT, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality: And then this is an example of an open piece of property that people decided it would be a good place for a clandestine dump.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Orleans' problems with landfills aren't about to end soon. About 20 percent of Katrina debris still has to be dumped somewhere, and waste from new construction is starting to pour into Old Gentilly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Vietnamese community profiled in Betty Ann's report is now fighting efforts to discharge wastewater from the landfill into the nearby canal.

There's more on New Orleans' landfills on our Web site, including an audio slideshow of the toxic dump sites and extended interviews from our segment. You can see it all at PBS.org.