- Since its reopening six weeks ago after a hiatus of nearly two decades, the Old Gentilly Landfill in eastern New Orleans has quickly become one of the area’s busiest landfills, with as much as 100,000 cubic yards of debris arriving on some days.
- reopening landfills that fall short of modern standards could create an ecological nightmare.
- Regulators deny that the landfill — the only one working in the city limits — was opened for expediency’s sake.Since its reopening six weeks ago after a hiatus of nearly two decades, the Old Gentilly Landfill in eastern New Orleans has quickly become one of the area’s busiest landfills, with as much as 100,000 cubic yards of debris arriving on some days.
It has been a surprising resurgence for a landfill that sits atop an old city waste site built in the years before environmental regulation and one that still does not meet some basic state requirements.
Reopened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Old Gentilly is back on line despite the concerns of two U.S. senators — David Vitter, R-La., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate’s top environmental committee — who said they fear that reopening landfills that fall short of modern standards could create an ecological nightmare.
They also wondered why Old Gentilly would be reopened given the relative abundance of other landfills in the New Orleans area. Those landfills meet tougher environmental regulations, and most charge lower fees than Old Gentilly.
Environmental groups have echoed the senators’ concerns, saying they fear runoff from the landfill will pollute nearby waterways and wetlands, and that the weight of the massive mountain of debris growing there will squeeze out toxins from the old, unlined household garbage underneath.
The state’s top environmental regulators have offered numerous, sometimes conflicting explanations for allowing Old Gentilly to reopen. On the one hand, they say, no rules were bent. On the other, they say some rules were temporarily relaxed, acknowledging that retaining walls around Old Gentilly are incomplete and that financial guarantees required for its future closure are still being worked out. Regulators deny that the landfill — the only one working in the city limits — was opened for expediency’s sake.
But at the same time, they also have said Old Gentilly is the best option because other landfills are too far away, even though a survey of local waste sites shows the differences in distance are not significant.
Regardless, regulators say there’s nothing to fear from Old Gentilly because it is accepting only relatively benign waste designated as construction and demolition, or C&D. In fact, Chuck Brown, assistant secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality, who signed off on the landfill’s reopening, took the unusual step of holding a news conference on behalf of the landfill. Standing at Old Gentilly, Brown said, “We’re quite fortunate to have it.”
Brown is backed by a recent assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which essentially gave the site an acceptable bill of health.
Still, environmentalists and others familiar with landfills are uneasy, noting troubling parallels between Old Gentilly’s reopening and the mass dumping of storm debris in 1965, after Hurricane Betsy, at the previously closed Agriculture Street Landfill. That area was later named a Superfund site, a federal designation that requires a massive cleanup.
If a similar situation were to recur with Old Gentilly, the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
“My big question is: Why use a facility that has all these variables, that has a big question mark on it?” said Nannette Jolivette, a lawyer who served as city sanitation director from 1994 to 1996. “We’ve spent far too many of our tax dollars to defend the bad environmental decisions of the past. It seems people are almost doomed to repeat those mistakes. We’ve been down this road before.”
Though it sits amid a sea of illegal dumping grounds in far eastern New Orleans, at the edge of a city where trash assaults the nostrils at every turn, Old Gentilly still has the power to shock the senses.
Heavily loaded trucks, one after another, rumble through the dusty entrance, headed toward a growing mountain of debris that stands atop tons of foul waste piled up in the decades before 1986, when the site was closed. In the foreground is a cypress swamp where ducks, cormorants and teal hunt for food, ignoring the cacophony behind them.
The landfill dates to 1964, when the area near Old Gentilly Road and Almonaster Avenue was nearly unspoiled wetlands. It was in full use until 1982, when the state Department of Natural Resources ordered it closed. Though efforts to shutter it began in earnest the following year, the closure never was fully completed.
In the 1990s, city voters passed a bond issue to help pay for the cost of covering the landfill with a layer of clay, with the job going to Durr Heavy Construction, a partner in the joint venture that now runs the landfill. But the money was insufficient to complete the job.
Mayor Marc Morial’s administration, in its final months, advanced a new goal: to reopen the site as a C&D landfill. The idea was to generate some revenue for the city, which would help pay for capping the remaining sections. It would also give the city a place to dump its own demolition debris — at the time, the debris of blighted houses — for free.
Morial awarded a potentially lucrative contract to AMID Metro Partnership LLC, a joint venture between two businessmen with a long history of working relationships with city agencies. The venture would secure the permits if possible and then run the site, keeping 97 percent of the money and giving the rest to the city, which owns it.
AMID’s principal, Stephen Stumpf, also is the chief executive of Durr, a leading beneficiary of local programs for disadvantaged business enterprises. Though Stumpf is a white man, the company has qualified for the programs because his wife, Donna, owns a majority of stock in the firm, although regulators have questioned whether Donna Stumpf actually controls the company. Stephen Stumpf did not return a call seeking comment.
Metro Disposal, whose principal is Jimmie Woods, has long held part of the city’s residential trash pickup contract reserved for minority firms. The firm’s records were subpoenaed by federal prosecutors last year in connection with a wide-ranging probe into contracts let by the Morial administration. Woods has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He did not return a call seeking comment.
The Nagin administration continued the effort to reopen the old site. Last December, DEQ’s Brown issued the city a permit, but one that came with several conditions that had to be satisfied before the landfill could begin accepting waste.
In an interview, Brown said the landfill had met all those requirements and that the storm played no role in his Sept. 29 decision to issue an order authorizing the landfill to begin operating.
“No conditions were waived,” he said. “Had there not been this natural disaster, it would still be a permitted landfill. It’s required to meet the same standards every facility of its type is required to meet.”
But critics say otherwise, and Brown conceded that certain regulations have been at least temporarily suspended because of the disaster.
For instance, when asked whether the landfill is surrounded by the retaining berms required of all C&D sites to keep polluted stormwater from leaving the property, he said Old Gentilly has berms “on three sides.”
The final containing wall is about to be built, he said.
The EPA report differs a bit, saying berms are in place on the north and east but not the south and west sides. It, too, says walls will soon be built. Regulations dictate that berms be in place on all sides before such facilities can accept waste.
State laws also require landfills to provide “financial assurances”: insurance policies, bonds or other security to ensure that money will be available for possible remediation or closure. To satisfy that, Brown’s order said that “all income derived from the disposal of materials into the landfill” will be put into a trust fund to ultimately accomplish closing Old Gentilly.
Regulators typically require that financial assurances be made upfront.
Brown said the trust fund hasn’t been created yet, though the landfill has been operating for six weeks. For now, he said, the city — with its coffers nearly bare in the wake of the storm — has provided the necessary guarantees.
“We’re still working it out,” he said. “At this point, we’re relying on the permit as financial assurance, but we’re going to change the method to a trust fund. That will be done shortly. And it will be very transparent. We’re just working out the details.”
Brown acknowledged the storm was a factor in the decision to relax those conditions. “The enormity of the situation has caused us to deal with some issues in ‘real time,’°Ë” he said.
The Sept. 29 order itself recognizes Katrina as a factor. It cites “the extenuating circumstances and the need for immediate available disposal for construction/demolition debris and woodwaste generated in the Greater New Orleans area by the hurricane” as reasons for opening the landfill.
There is a belief, apparently widely held, that there isn’t enough space in local landfills to handle Katrina’s debris. During Mayor Ray Nagin’s recent appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he was questioned about the reopening of Old Gentilly, he testified that “every other landfill in the area, it is my understanding, is being fully utilitized.”
Inhofe, the chairman, said he believed there were other, “more modern” sites available. He and other committee members expressed concern that the placing of debris on ancient landfills such as Old Gentilly could result in the “creation of new Superfund sites.”
Nagin responded: “Well, we’d like to know where (the other landfills) are.”
Inhofe and Vitter wrote a letter Sept. 26 to the EPA requesting a list of all landfills in the New Orleans region with available capacity and a “plan to ensure that such capacity will be utilized” before any old sites are reopened.
Three days after the letter was mailed, the Old Gentilly Landfill was in business. An EPA spokesman said the DEQ has full jurisdiction over the matter.
Despite Nagin’s testimony and Brown’s remarks about the need for new sites, it appears that other local landfills — built in more suitable sites and according to more modern guidelines — could easily handle the volume of debris caused by the storm.
And while the sites are farther away, the differences are not great. Moreover, most charge less for tipping fees — a cost that is picked up by the federal government — than does Old Gentilly.
For instance, River Birch’s U.S. 90 landfill in Avondale is just four miles farther from central New Orleans than the Old Gentilly site. Its owners charge $2.50 per cubic yard versus $3.50 at Old Gentilly. The Industrial Pipe Landfill in Belle Chasse also charges $2.50 and is just eight miles farther.
A bit more distant are the KV Landfill in Killona, which charges $2.50 a cubic yard, and the Slidell Landfill, which charges $5. Those four landfills could take in the estimated 14 million cubic yards of debris created by Katrina and have plenty of room to spare. All meet current landfill guidelines.
The alternative landfills are much closer than DEQ Secretary Mike McDaniel, Brown’s boss, suggested in a recent letter to The Washington Post.
“If the Old Gentilly Landfill were not in operation, the nearest landfill that would be allowed to take construction and demolition waste would be nearly 30 miles away,” he wrote. “To move many millions of tons of debris through heavy traffic areas within New Orleans to be processed at a facility nearly 30 miles away would be inefficient and environmentally unsound.
Hundreds of trucks would have to travel farther, consume more fuel, create more emissions, and wait several hours before their load could be processed, then turn around and drive the 30 miles back to pick up another load.”
DEQ spokesman Darin Mann said McDaniel was speaking about how far other landfills are from Old Gentilly, not estimating distances from where the debris is being collected.
Brown denies environmental regulations are being relaxed in the name of expediency but says speed and convenience can’t be overlooked as factors.
“It’s all about efficiency, not capacity,” he said. “The more facilities we have processing waste, the sooner the cleanup can be completed.”
In keeping with that line of thinking, the DEQ is considering allowing several other old landfills to reopen, including the Crescent Acres site in St. Bernard Parish and the old Recovery 1 Landfill in eastern New Orleans.
Environmentalists and even some regulators see that as a dangerous idea. In a recent letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed a series of concerns about the possible reopening of Recovery 1, which is next to the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest bird rookeries on the Gulf Coast.
“We are .°Ë.°Ë. very concerned about the possible future use of that facility for the disposal of demolition/construction debris for several reasons,” the letter states in part, noting that Recovery 1— like the Old Gentilly Landfill — is not equipped with a protective liner.
“Given the scope and nature of the flooding events and the age of many of the buildings in question, we believe that the delivery of materials containing numerous environmental contaminants such as lead-based paint, asbestos, creosote, arsenic-based wood-treatment chemicals, various petroleum products, and a variety of household pesticides and cleaning chemicals would be unavoidable,” the letter says.
“Placement of such materials in an un-lined landfill, particularly within coastal wetlands, would likely result in leaching and resultant contamination of ground water, surface water and adjacent wetland habitats. We believe that disposal of demolition/construction debris must be conducted based on a thorough and rigorous analysis of all available landfills to avoid the potential for creating a new Superfund site, such as the Agriculture Street Landfill.”
Though the Fish and Wildlife Service’s letter was aimed at Recovery 1, other observers say the concerns apply to Old Gentilly. The city and state are ignoring such warnings at their peril, critics say.
“To do this when there’s so many other options to me is shortsighted,” Jolivette said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s déjà vu. We’ve made this mistake before.”
Forty years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, the shuttered Agriculture Street Landfill was brought back to life. Debris was hauled there, burned and eventually covered, with houses and schools ultimately built atop and near the site.
It later was named a Superfund site, with residents complaining of various health problems. The site has exacted a financial cost as well as a human one. The city has spent decades in litigation, running up legal bills in the millions of dollars in defending itself.
Though there are parallels between Old Gentilly and Agriculture Street, there are clear differences too. For one, the steps the operators of Old Gentilly are being required to take are far more stringent than the ones imposed in 1965.
Also, the area around Old Gentilly is essentially unpopulated, and one could argue that the area already is an environmental hazard given the proliferation of illegal dumps nearby.
That reality is noted in the EPA report, which essentially offers an argument that Old Gentilly can’t be blamed for all the toxins in the area because of the number of illegal dumps. It says the area includes “other landfills, dumps, automotive junk yards and polluted storm water and industrial discharge sewers,” and concludes: “Contaminants in ground water cannot be traced solely to the Old Gentilly Landfill.”
The EPA report acknowledges that its own tests found some problems at the site on at least one occasion. A series of soil samples in 1997 found levels of arsenic, vanadium, aluminum and magnesium that “met observed contamination criteria.”
Unacceptable thresholds of arsenic and aluminum also were found in groundwater samples at the time. But the recent EPA report noted that the 1997 tests “did not consider potential sources of groundwater contamination from other commercial and industrial facilities in the vicinity of the site.”
Even if the area is already polluted and sparsely populated, critics of the newly opened landfill say it’s a poor place for a landfill because of its location next to wetlands and waterways.
“It’s right in the middle of a classic swamp,” said Robert Wiygul, who has sued the DEQ on behalf of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network in hopes of forcing it to close.
Moreover, the bottom of the old municipal waste site underneath the new landfill is unlined, and the weight of millions of tons of new debris may force toxic runoff, called leachate, out into those waters, Wiygul and others say.
Brown, again, disagrees.
“That is not a concern,” he said. “We’ve done soil samples, and they’ve all indicated that the waste in place there (underneath the new landfill) has totally decomposed. There’s no danger of leachate. We did water sampling where we drilled through the cap, and we didn’t find anything. At this point, we feel any risk from the facility is at best minimal.”
Brown is backed by the EPA assessment, which says the old waste “is unlikely to expel fluids, particularly leachate in such quantities as to flow some distance from the landfill. The weight loading of this landfill with Katrina waste and potential squeezing of leachate that would contaminate ground water or surface water is of limited concern.”
Critics say there’s nothing stopping rainwater from running off-site from the new material, which may not be quite as benign as traditional construction and demolition debris. An emergency order issued by the DEQ expanded the definition of construction debris to include mattresses, carpet, furniture, treated lumber and other items, meaning the permitted waste could include items such as furniture covered in lead paint.
Allowing the site to open without retaining berms “violates three laws,” said Oliver Houck, professor of environmental law at Tulane Law School. “The berm ought to come first, or the C&D is just getting dumped in the marsh.”
Houck said he rejects the claim that regulators will be able to limit the material being dumped to even those types of construction debris, particularly given the volume at which it is arriving.
“C&D in this town tends to carry everything from batteries to asbestos shingles,” Houck said. “It’s not the hauler’s fault they’re in there. But there are many facilities available for that kind of stuff. This one is in a wetland, so it’s the worst kind of stuff going into the worst kind of environment. Maybe it’s all C&D. Maybe the moon is made of green cheese, too.”
Though Houck questions the ability of officials to effectively screen trash coming into Old Gentilly, Brown disagrees.
“There are no less than four pairs of eyes that see every load,” he said. “And there are monitors in the back that watch the loads as they’re dumped. We’ve made every effort to segregate the waste streams. White goods and hazardous materials, they’re being separated out. I feel there’s a yeoman’s effort being made to make sure commingling doesn’t exist.”
The EPA report also concluded that efforts to segregate and monitor the trash coming into the landfill were adequate.
The results of the dumping — which could total millions of cubic yards and create a mountain as high as 130 feet under the permit — may not be known for many years.
But Jolivette and others worry the city is putting itself in a precarious position for a relatively small return.
The city’s 3 percent cut of the revenue from the landfill could bring in a little more than $2 million in the first year of operation, given current volumes. The operators, meanwhile, stand to gross about $75 million if the dump continues to hum along.
“You’ve got to look long-term at what the costs will be to the environment and the area,” she said. “I know we’re in a state of emergency, but you cannot let the risks far outweigh the benefit.”
Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (504)°Ë826-3347.