Landfill Worries Cloud Hope for New Orleans Gardens

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Urban gardens were key to helping New Orleans's Vietnamese population return and reestablish their close-knit community just weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

The gardens, which cover nearly every inch of open space in the Versailles neighborhood of eastern New Orleans, provided fresh produce long before grocery stores reopened and kept alive a farming tradition that residents brought from their North Vietnam villages more than three decades ago.

Now local church and development leaders are trying to launch a 30-acre urban farm to let elderly gardeners grow more and earn more selling produce at a popular Saturday market. The vision includes free-range livestock, aquaculture and playgrounds for gardeners' grandchildren. But leaders fear that their dream will be impeded by a legacy of Katrina: a nearby emergency demolition landfill that opponents think could release arsenic or other contaminants into the soil, water and air.

Officials with the state and Waste Management, which ran the now-closed landfill, note that air and water tests have found nothing above safe levels. Community leaders say that may be the case now, but they are upset there are no mandates or plans for ongoing testing to detect contamination that may emerge.

"This farm is part of the community's resilience," said the Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam, a Roman Catholic church that is spearheading the urban farm. "We fended for ourselves all this time, and if Katrina happened again, we could do it all again. But we want to know we have healthy conditions for the farm."

Nguyen started brainstorming about the farm with residents a few months after Katrina hit. Then they worked with architects from Louisiana State and Tulane universities and professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design the $550,000 project. New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh has promised to buy vegetables for his restaurants.

The Chef Menteur landfill, two miles from the farm site, was hastily opened in April 2006 for debris from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As a construction and demolition (C&D) landfill, it was not required to have a liner, leachate collection or groundwater monitoring wells as would be required for landfills accepting household and industrial waste. City zoning procedures and Clean Water Act requirements were suspended as an emergency measure post-Katrina, allowing the landfill to be created without city council approval or a waste permit.

The Vietnamese community and environmental groups concerned about the adjacent Bayou Sauvage wetlands opposed the landfill, and in August 2006, the city government closed it.

But opponents, including the plaintiffs in four ongoing lawsuits, argue that the landfill may still present a risk. They assert that household chemicals, paint, batteries and other toxic debris were dumped in the landfill amid the contents of ruined houses. And landfill opponents fear that arsenic, chromium and copper are leaching from treated lumber, and hydrogen sulfide gas from deteriorating gypsum drywall.

The landfill is in a swampy area with a high water table, and they are concerned that contaminants could easily move through the surface water and groundwater to the urban farm and the backyard gardens in the Vietnamese community.

Waste Management officials say the landfill is nestled in a thick layer of low-permeability clay that prevents leakage, and they point to testing by the company and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which has found no contaminants exceeding legal limits in the air or water.

"Site-specific testing confirms that the debris within the landfill is properly isolated from the environment and poses absolutely no potential threat of harm to human health or the environment," Waste Management spokesman Ken Haldin said.

Lisa Jordan, an attorney at Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic, is not convinced. She points to Environmental Protection Agency data indicating water has flowed from the landfill.

"It's presumed most of the stuff going in a C&D landfill is inert," Jordan said. "But when these houses were demolished, everything was in a giant pile outside on the curb, and it all went in the landfill. Because of Katrina, there was more treated lumber than would normally be the case, not to mention it was picking up things from sitting so long in that disgusting fetid water."

Thomas Harris, waste permit administrator for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said there is "absolutely no validity" to environmental concerns. He said spotters working curbside and at the landfill removed most hazardous products when the landfill was operating. The state last tested air, water and soil at the site in September 2007 and found no problems.

"There was a lot of talk about how this was somehow special, but we never saw anything in any of the chemical analyses that would indicate it was different than anywhere else," Harris said.

The department will issue a closure certification to the landfill in coming weeks, then Waste Management is responsible for maintaining the landfill cap's integrity for three years. State officials will do no further testing, though if Waste Management needs to drain effluent from the site, it is required to test it and report the results.

Permits allow it to discharge accumulated rain or groundwater into the Maxent Lagoon. The lagoon's banks are lined with makeshift gardens. Effluent from the landfill will be pumped away from the Vietnamese community, though Nguyen thinks it could still flow toward them when pumps are not running.

Part of the motivation for the urban farm is to relocate these haphazard but thriving gardens, since locals think the lagoon and surrounding soils could be contaminated by sediments stirred up during Katrina. Harris said no such contamination was found in post-Katrina testing.

"Since the storm, we can't trust the water in the canal," said Peter Nguyen, urban agriculture manager of the community development corporation affiliated with the church. "That's why we want the farm. We don't want to find out 20 years from now that our kids are getting cancer."

Vien Nguyen would like to see the waste removed, or at least mandatory ongoing groundwater monitoring, a central demand of the lawsuits.

"Arsenic sometimes takes decades to leach out," Jordan said. "I don't think it's too much to ask them to put in groundwater monitoring and look for this stuff."

Joel Waltzer, a public interest lawyer who once represented plaintiffs opposing the landfill's creation, said the controversy is a lesson for federal and state authorities to be more forward-thinking about waste from natural disasters.

"There was a huge need to move this debris; it had to go somewhere," said Waltzer, noting there are also hundreds of acres of illegal dumps in the wetlands surrounding Chef Menteur. "You have to have sites prepared ahead of time for when something happens and spend the money to do it right the first time so you don't end up moving it later."

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