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

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; A05

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?"

Waste from oil and natural gas exploration and production has been exempt from federal hazardous-waste regulations since the 1980s and can be dumped in industrial-graded landfills.

The EPA says its tests have found that the oily trash going into landfills here is not hazardous, but some local officials on the Gulf Coast remain skeptical. They don't want it going in city and county landfills with baby diapers, rotten food and other residential waste.

"I'm not a scientist. I'm not familiar with the chemistry and all that. But I can see when BP had people pick up the tar balls on the beach they had gloves and protective clothing," said Marlin Ladner, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Harrison County, Miss. "So one wonders, if there were no toxicity involved, why would they be specially dressed?"

Ladner was prepared to sue BP if it did not stop dumping at Pecan Grove Landfill in his district.

"It was really like a slap in the face to the people of Harrison County to pollute our shores with the oil and then turn around and put it in the ground five miles north," he said. "It's like somebody dumping waste in your front yard, then putting it in your back yard."

The company agreed to not use the landfill. Still, the trash from the shores there has been diverted to other landfills -- creating another problem altogether, said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. His analysis of the BP waste disposal found that 61 percent of the trash from the oil spill has been sent to landfills in minority and low-income communities.

"Low-income and minority communities are getting dumped on in a way that is so overwhelming that it should raise eyebrows," said Bullard, who pointed out that more than 70 percent of the people living within a mile of the Harrison County landfill are white and relatively affluent. "Our communities get zoned for garbage. They were able to get a meeting with BP and stop the dumping."

The EPA's plan

In a letter to Bullard, EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said the agency approved a plan to deposit the waste in landfills close to the spill and took the racial makeup of the communities surrounding the landfills into account, along with the history of complaints about odor and other issues.

Stanislaus said he was "disappointed" by BP's decision to stop sending waste to Harrison County, since the trash meets the legal requirements for disposal there.

"This administration has made environmental justice one of our highest priorities," Stanislaus said, pointing out the approved landfills for dumping the waste vary demographically and that in most cases no more than 7 percent of the waste going into local landfills is oily garbage.

The agency is also developing a tool to further its environmental justice initiative -- a calculation for making decisions about where waste goes that uses factors such as income level, toxic emissions and pollution events, such as an oil spill, to determine whether an area has been unfairly affected by environmental hazards.

"The people and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of the spill must be empowered in the response and long-term rebuilding," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement. "That focus has been part of the waste disposal efforts as well. In the directive EPA and the Coast Guard issued to BP on waste disposal, we ensured that communities would have access to a transparent, public decision making process."

There are still 91 miles of boom out in the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bays. Part of it will be recycled; the rest will be tossed.

In Louisiana, after the oily trash is gathered down in Grand Isle and other places on the coast, it is being taken to the landfill in Venice and north to Ascension Parish, Avondale and Jefferson Parish near New Orleans.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club in New Orleans, has attended meetings with EPA officials and said they have been listening to the community's concerns and giving environmentalists and civil rights groups tours of the trash facilities. But he wants more information on the chemicals going into local landfills.

"There are so many difficult questions that are still not answered as far as oil waste impact," Malek-Wiley said. "It's really stressful. There are so many unknowns."

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