Friday, May 12, 2006

Katrina wreckage dump causes anger

Dispute touches on politics, money, race and history


New York Times
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 in their backyard, 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: 23,000 acres of marshland, canals and lagoons, home to herons, egrets, alligators and, in the fall, tens of thousands of migratory ducks.

It 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 the new landfill is safe and that they are moving quickly to protect public health and the environment. 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 issued a permit for the landfill.
The state has agreed to extra monitoring of groundwater, Brown said. But it has determined "there's nothing toxic, nothing hazardous," he said.

Like so many disputes that have erupted since the hurricane, this one involves highly charged issues: politics, money, history and race.

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," he said of the government agencies that approved the dump site, which residents fear will tower 80 feet or more above their neighborhood.
"Maybe we're not the right kind of people he wanted to return," Nguyen said.


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