Waste from BP oil spill cleanup has gulf residents near landfills concerned

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- The pile of soiled boom sitting more than four feet high and cooking under the summer sun at an abandoned shipyard here will be a part of the oil spill that endures.

As beach cleanup is scaled down, the fate of all the oily trash created and collected along the Gulf Coast is causing a raging debate that BP and federal officials are trying hard to curb.

"We're getting all kinds of complaints from people," said Burnell Tolbert, president of the NAACP branch in nearby Lafourche Parish, a staging area where more than 2,500 tons of waste has been deposited.

People want to know what is in those trash bags, where they will end up and if the workers handling the oily trash are safe, he said.

The answers are leaving important groups unsatisfied. One coastal county threatened to sue BP if it continues to put trash from the spill in a local landfill. Not wanting to get into a tussle with the residents, the company relented, diverting the trash to other landfills. Others are arguing that too much of the trash is going to low-income and minority communities.

The oil from BP's rig explosion in April has already created more than 45,000 tons of garbage -- the solid oil and all the materials used to gather it -- and much more oily liquid waste. The trash is being shipped every day to nine landfills that store household garbage and non-hazardous industrial waste in communities across Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

The Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP are "working hand in hand" to manage all that trash -- and are reaching out to community groups to try to allay fears that chemicals from the oil-soaked material could seep into the groundwater drinking supply, said BP spokesman Scott Dean.

The federal government issued a 34-page plan directing BP to recycle and reuse as much trash as it can and to post information about the trash it is collecting online. (So far about 50 tons of trash has been recycled, according to BP.) The government also has asked the company to start holding meetings with the communities around the landfills.

Still, contractors working for BP bag tons of trash daily. From Grand Isle alone, anywhere between eight and 16 dump trucks a day carry trash to landfills throughout Louisiana. The oily water is processed for refining.

From the isle, waste is trucked to places such as Venice, La. -- a small strip of land surrounded by bayous in the southernmost reaches of the state. The big landfill there -- with its rolling hills of decaying metal and household trash -- has already received 2,800 tons of oily waste, according to BP.

'A slap in the face'

Kindra Arnesen, who lives about four miles from the landfill, sent her children to live 200 miles inland because she's worried about all that the oil spill has left in its wake.

"I grew up being told not to even throw a Coke bottle in the bayou," she said. "Now look. What are we leaving for our children?"

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