Dumping waste in the sinking delta…the good, the bad and the smelly.
by Len Bahr, PhD*
The many challenges that followed the tragic passage of Hurricane Katrina included finding appropriate disposal sites for unprecedented piles of debris, including fallen trees, building materials, recyclable items like automobiles and refrigerators and a toxic mixture of virtually every chemical compound known to woman. Katrina waste was generated by: (1) immediate damage from storm surge and wind; and (2) delayed destruction from flooding caused by the failure of substandard levees, for which the Corps of Engineers was ultimately found culpable.
Given the huge number of New Orleans homes at flooded sub sea level sites, it occurred to some waste-averse folks that some of the rubble remaining after the storm could be used to elevate urban low spots. One night a creative Great Lakes coastal colleague named John Marlin called from Illinois, “Len, I see on TV that they’re hauling Waveland bricks and concrete to Mississippi landfills…couldn’t that material be brought to New Orleans to raise home rebuilding sites?”
Watching caravans of trucks hauling Karina-generated solid building materials literally uphill from low lying New Orleans to landfills on the North Shore also seemed ‘wasteful.’ In my opinion, clean fill material should have been heading south, not north.
On the other hand, dumping miscellaneous unseparated wastes willy nilly into NOLA landfills either at or below sea level makes no sense. After all, these sites will likely be under water one day.
With respect to the latter issue, Richard Rainey has been ‘unearthing’ a story for The Times-Picayune about possible influence peddling by lobbyists re choosing between competing landfill disposal sites in the vicinity of New Orleans to dump Katrina’s ‘awful offal.’ These competing sites were River Birch in Jefferson Parish and Old Gentilly in eastern New Orleans, both low lying pits perilously close to coastal waters.
On February 25, 2011 Rainey described the indictment of Henry Mouton, former Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner and friend of Governor Mike Foster. According to Rainey, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard and members of his administration were also implicated.
The latest chapter in this sordid solid waste saga, published in The T-P on September 8, reported the whiff of possible corruption on the part of iconic New Orleans WWL radio commentator Garland Robinette, who apparently used his broadcast voice to promote the River Birch site for Katrina waste, while borrowing $250,000 from River Birch owner Fred Heebe.
How ironic that Mr. Robinette may have profited from the waste created by Katrina flood damage after so famously excoriating the Corps of Engineers for levee failures that caused the damage in the first place. A letter by Connie P. Keller in the September 12 Times-Picayune reflects the angst that Mr. Robinette has caused many of his faithful listeners.
In addition to Robinette, Rainey’s article included a list of state officials who may have also been involved in Katrina landfill lobbying, including two of Governor Jindal’s chief staffers, Timmy Teepall, his campaign director and Garret Graves, his coastal advisor. The political ramifications of this story are far from resolved, as are its coastal implications.
Reading about the controversial coastal dumping of Katrina waste reminded me that right after Katrina I had been particularly interested in the feasibility of placing the huge volume of uncontaminated organic waste…mostly downed trees…onto selected coastal areas. Much of this resource could in theory have been used to infill former emergent wetland that has recently degraded to submergent (open water) habitat.
Using selected Katrina waste to benefit the coast, rather than paying to discard it needlessly should have been seriously considered by coastal officials. The general subject was briefly considered but ultimately ruled out by bureaucrats at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources…who were presumably more concerned about potential lawsuits than about coastal degradation.
I helplessly watched thousands of tons of woody primary production in the form of ‘Katrina trees’ being incinerated to CO2, soot and ash and blown into a polluted atmosphere on the North Shore, about four miles west of Madisonville. This wasteful act transpired on Guste island Road, only a mile or two north of a dying coastal forest on the rim of Lake Pontchartrain.
I know this because the dysfunctional former forest that could have seriously benefitted from a transfusion of organic material, is due north of our modest little town house at Port Louis. I assume that similar mountains of Katrina trees were being burned at many other convenient coastal sites.
Burning wind-felled trees likely generated a FEMA-funded windfall for the landlord of the burn site. Thus, like in the landfill saga, Katrina waste seems to have unleashed the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of many for whom greed, rather than the sinking coast, is paramount.
Because Katrina will not be the last storm to devastate America’s Delta, plans should be made ahead of time about separating the resulting solid waste into at least four fractions (1) possibly contaminated materials to be stored in hazardous waste landfills (outside of flood zones); (2) metal products to be recycled; (3) clean building rubble for elevating low areas; and (4) trees that could be composted and used beneficially.
*Founding editor email@example.com