Study shows landfill reopening could threaten levee
By James Varney
The pressure from a monstrous pile of debris put into the Old Gentilly Landfill since Hurricane Katrina could push mushy soil under the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet levee, weakening another piece of New Orleans’ already shaky flood protection system, according to an investigative study of the site.
That finding was the most explosive in a final draft of the study commisioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and released Tuesday.
State environmental officials disputed the findings in the report and characterized its methodology as “haphazard.”
FEMA contractors have been using the Old Gentilly site, which closed in 1986, as an emergency receptacle for some of the millions of cubic yards of debris created by last year’s storms. The site’s reopening triggered protests from various groups who feared the antiquated landfill wasn’t an environmentally sound site for new dumping, and FEMA ordered up the study in response to those complaints and lawsuits.
“Very simply, there is a concern that relatively weak natural foundation soils underlying the Gentilly Landfill may be over-loaded by ongoing waste placement and become unstable,” the report said. “In particular, there is a potential that affected soils may include foundation soils below the MRGO levee and extend out as far as the MRGO canal face.”
The potential development bears an alarming similarity to what some groups believe happened with the 17th Street Canal during Hurricane Katrina. Studies in the failure zone there indicate that porous soil underneath the floodwall’s steel pilings probably destabilized the protective barrier and led to its collapse. A state Senate committee is expected to take up the report’s findings at a hearing Thursday.
Meanwhile, what may be developing beneath the MRGO levee has also caught the attention of engineers investigating the 17th Street Canal’s failure. Ivor van Heerden, a geologist at Louisiana State University, said he hopes to launch a formal probe of the MRGO levee’s underground strength in the next 10 days. What investigators will be looking for is something called, informally, “a hamburger effect,” in which pressure atop something forces what is underneath to squirt out the sides.
“We had already developed concerns about the close proximity of the landfill and the levee in our review of the city’s levee system,” van Heerden said. “And with all this new matter there is a potential for a lateral heave given this type of soil.”
It appears that lateral heave would come from the estimated 4 million cubic yards of waste that have been dumped at Old Gentilly since Katrina. Joel Waltzer, an attorney for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which has filed a suit against the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that seeks the revocation of the landfill’s post-Katrina permit, estimated the debris is in places piled as high as 130 feet above the landfill’s old clay cap and covers some 220 of the site’s 230 total acres.
FEMA did not respond to phone calls late Tuesday afternoon, and officials with the Department of Environmental Quality said elements of the study were done in a haphazard fashion and without full consultation with either DEQ or other regulatory agencies. In addition, the authors of the FEMA report, who spent no more than 45 minutes on the ground at Old Gentilly, never requested any of the voluminous data amassed on Old Gentilly Landfill operations, said Chuck Carr Brown, DEQ’s assistant secretary.
“We see no place for FEMA to act like a regulatory agency here,” Brown said, noting his department was still reviewing the final report and would most likely issue a more comprehensive response. “We have lots and lots of issues with this report. We as a department have been involved with this site for more than 20 years, and you’d think if you were doing a report out there you’d want to talk to the regulatory bodies involved and they didn’t.”
Despite Brown’s protests, Tuesday’s report appeared to confirm many of the fears of the enviornmental groups who opposed the new activity at the landfill. It notes grimly that there is a dearth of data allowing accurate measurements of groundwater contamination, runoff, gas buildups, and the structural soundness of a clay cap on the old dumped material. The report suggests the landfill could become a kind of seeping, poisonous sponge with longterm, baleful results in eastern New Orleans and beyond.
That could translate into a legal predicament for FEMA, according to the National Infrastructure Support Technical Assistance Consultants (NISTAC) that conducted the study.
“NISTAC concludes that FEMA could potentially be exposed to high risk of future environmental liability based on current conditions and environmental history of this site,” the report said.
The environmental groups voiced that doomsday scenario even before the report began, but Waltzer said he was stunned by the possibility another levee could be undermined by subsoil action.
“It is beyond ironic (that) we would allow millions and millions of pounds of waste out there when we don’t have conservative estimates or reliable information about the impact,” he said.
The possibility the city’s recent nightmarish history could repeat should be a bugle for residents, he said. Waltzer, who lost an office in eastern New Orleans and a home in Gentilly in the post-Katrina flooding said he is not willing to take further chances.
“They’re threatening my levee now,” he said. “Forget about whether or not you’re an environmentalist. You don’t monkey around with levees here anymore.”
On Tuesday morning, the Senate Environmental Quality Commission was addressing the draft version of the report when Sen. Derrick Shepherd,D-Marrero, said he received an anonymous copy of the final report. Senators and DEQ officials have rescheduled the hearing for Thursday morning, but Shepherd was outspoken about what he thinks could be a disaster.
“I’m hoping to sound the alarm because I’m very frightened and the public should be very frightened,” he said. “This report is scary and the DEQ has no answer except to say its erroneous and that’s not going to cut it.”
At DEQ, Brown insisted such talk is hyperbolic. He cited a 2004 study tied to the impact of additional waste being put on top of Old Gentilly’s clay cap, and said that study showed the site could hold 2,000 times as much debris as has been dumped there since Katrina. Furthermore, tests on the actual site soil do not reflect the destabilizing influence the report theorizes could occur, he said.
“The people who did this report should have had that data and they didn’t,” he said.
Similarly, fears of water contamination are overblown, Brown said. An analysis of groundwater at the site on Nov. 9 reflected zero contaminants, he said. What’s more, the public is being misled about the type of debris that is being dumped at the Old Gentilly site. Brown pointed to three points at which the debris is reviewed — at curbside when it is picked up, by “eyes” in towers who survey the trucks when they arrive, and by “pickers” at the dumping location — as evidence hazardous materials are not being mingled.
As a result, he bristles at suggestions New Orleans may be repeating another mistake, that made at the Agriculture Street landfill after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In that case, city officials dumped and burned storm-related debris atop the former landfill, which subsequently morphed into a Superfund site, the designation imposed on the nation’s most contaminated areas and one that requires astonishingly expensive and lengthy cleanups.
James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3386.