DEQ says landfill closure will slow recovery
The state Department of Environmental Quality has promised to abide by whatever decision local officials make about the future of the controversial Chef Menteur Highway landfill in eastern New Orleans. But in a strongly worded letter to Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council President Oliver Thomas, a high DEQ official warned that closing the landfill will significantly slow the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and could cost the city significant amounts of money.
Meanwhile, local opponents of the landfill say two recently issued scientific reports support their position that it is environmentally unsafe because it includes hazardous household and other wastes as well as inert construction and demolition debris. DEQ disagrees with that claim.
The landfill is next to the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge and not far from some residential areas, such as the heavily Vietnamese-American community of Village de l’Est.
Nagin, who issued an executive order in February letting the Chef Menteur landfill open on an emergency basis to speed the removal of hurricane debris, said July 13 that he would not renew his order when it expires Aug. 14. Nagin’s order, issued under his post-Katrina emergency powers, let the landfill open without a conditional-use permit from the City Council, which it normally would need.
The announcement from Nagin’s office that he would not renew the landfill’s emergency permit said the site would close Aug. 14. Some opponents had feared that DEQ and the facility’s operator, Waste Management of Louisiana, might try to keep it open past that date.
But the July 21 letter to Nagin and Thomas from DEQ Assistant Secretary Chuck Carr Brown made clear that the state will accept the city’s decision. Unless Nagin changes his mind or the council issues a conditional-use permit for the landfill before Aug. 14, Brown wrote, his department “will revoke its temporary authorization for the Chef Menteur facility to operate.”
There seems little prospect that the council will do anything. Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, whose district includes the site, is an outspoken opponent of the landfill, and the council could not issue a conditional-use permit until a request for one had gone through extensive City Planning Commission review. Waste Management has never filed an application for such a permit.
But in his letter, Brown made clear he strongly disagrees with Nagin’s decision. “We feel it is our responsibility to inform you of the potential consequences, including significantly impeding disaster clean-up and recovery” for New Orleans, he said.
Saying that he expects tens of thousands of flooded homes in the city will need to be demolished, Brown said that means at least another “20 million cubic yards of demolition debris in Orleans Parish will be earmarked for disposal before rebuilding can begin.”
Closing the Chef Menteur landfill likely will reduce the number of houses that can be demolished per day in the city by “50 percent or more because excess curbside debris, without adequate disposal facilities, poses a public safety risk,” Brown wrote.
That would double the timetable for demolishing flooded houses from six months to more than a year, he wrote, meaning that far more would have to be demolished after Dec. 31, the last day FEMA has said it will cover the full cost of demolition and debris disposal. After that date, unless the deadline is extended, the city will have to pay at least 10 percent of the cost.
In addition, Brown warned, closing the Chef Menteur landfill probably will cause an increase in illegal dumping in Orleans Parish, drive up costs and cause delays because debris will have to be trucked to more distant landfills, and pose safety problems at those landfills as their workload increases.
Opponents of the Chef Menteur landfill say Brown’s warnings are exaggerated and that, with proper planning, other area landfills can handle even the huge amount of material expected in coming months.
Some also question whether as many homes in New Orleans will need to be demolished as he predicts. Besides 15,000 “red-tagged” homes identified by the city as dangerous and in need of demolition, Brown’s letter said he expects “the vast majority” of 80,000 homes marked with yellow tags, meaning they were judged to be sound but with structural damage, also will have to be demolished under FEMA’s new flood elevation maps.
Joel Waltzer, an attorney for two groups that have been trying to close the landfill, said he was happy the state will abide by local officials’ decision. But Waltzer, who represents the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Coalition for a Strong New Orleans East, said DEQ is still refusing “to address real concerns raised by the scientific community” about the safety of the Chef Menteur landfill or “to even discuss alternative solutions.”
Landfill opponents last week released two scientific reports they said support their position.
One report, by John Pardue, director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at LSU, said debris should be sorted before it is dumped in the landfill to remove “household hazardous waste,” gypsum wallboard and treated lumber, all of which can cause serious environmental problems outside the landfill.
Pardue also said DEQ should set stricter standards for debris landfills that would “meaningfully protect the environment and surrounding communities.” It also should conduct much more rigorous tests than the June tests that DEQ and Waste Management have said show the Chef Menteur landfill is safe, he said.
An analysis of the Chef Menteur landfill site by LSU geologist and hydrologist Paul Kemp suggested that “fairly continuous pumping” will be needed to prevent contaminated groundwater from escaping from the site.
Lawyer Kyle Schonekas, who had filed a lawsuit claiming that Nagin’s February executive order allowing the landfill to open was illegal because the mayor lacked the authority to exclude the City Council from land-use decisions, said Tuesday that he has told the city he will not pursue the litigation if the city confirms the site will close Aug. 14.
A Civil District Court judge ruled July 14 that the original point of the lawsuit was moot after Nagin said he would not renew his order, but Schonekas had said at the time that he intended to go back into court seeking an order to shut the landfill on other grounds.
(Bruce Eggler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3320.)