On September 1st, this magazine broke the story “Love Canal-type landfill submerged in New Orleans floodwaters” after Hurricane Katrina. The story was picked up by some U.S. media, and Solid Waste & Recycling magazine editor Guy Crittenden was interviewed for a morning show broadcast to more than 500,000 U.S. listeners over National Public Radio (NPR).
It now appears that mainstream environmental groups, government agencies and the media at large are discovering the broader story of contaminated land for themselves, and a controversy is erupting. An environmental chemist Wilma Subra has found that contaminants from an old landfill that flooded and also banned pesticides from a closed-down pesticide plant are leaching into surrounding areas.
Our news story concerned the Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL), situated on a 95-acre site in New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana. The ASL is a federally registered Superfund site, and is on the National Priorities List of highly contaminated sites requiring cleanup and containment. As our initial report and a follow-up in the magazine indicated, a few years ago the site, which sits underneath and beside houses and a school, was fenced and covered with clean soil. By using map overlays, we concluded that the ASL site was under three feet or more of flood waters that could potentially cause the landfill’s toxic contents — the result of decades of municipal and industrial waste dumping — to leach out. (Search on the words “New Orleans” at our website www.solidwastemag.com to access the articles.)
Our follow-up of the ongoing story was frustrated by the fact that most local officials and academics or activists with direct knowledge of the site were evacuated along with everyone else. However, recent news reports indicate recognition of the problem and interested parties have become vocal about the potential for the city’s parks and yards to be contaminated with dangerous chemicals and heavy metals for years unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency orders a widespread cleanup.
On Thursday, the Natural Resources Defense Council and several Louisiana groups presented an assessment that stands in stark contrast to statements by state and federal agencies that contamination does not appear to be widespread.
The EPA says it hasn’t found soil contamination in New Orleans at levels that require a major cleanup, and state regulators aren’t pushing to remove large amounts of sediment. A toxicologist with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was quoted saying that soil samples don’t justify wide-scale soil removal and that there’s no problem in terms of long-term exposure.
However, environmentalists say regulators have downplayed the risks caused by environmental waivers for factories, debris disposal and oil spills. They say independent soil tests show high levels of arsenic and other contaminants throughout New Orleans.
“Until these problems are cleaned up, it’s not a good idea to have people moving for the long-term into these communities,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, an NRDC senior scientist.
But state officials disagree, saying (of arsenic) that the naturally-occurring metal is often found in similar concentrations.
Tom Harris, a toxicologist with the Louisiana DEQ, said, “It’s a little irresponsible to tell people they can’t go back in their houses because of the level of arsenic, because wherever they go they will find arsenic in the soil.”
He also disputes test results presented by environmental chemist Wilma Subra about the banned pesticides from the pesticide plant and contaminants from the old landfill.
New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights hopes to persuade the EPA to order a large-scale cleanup in the city, said attorney Monique Harden. In the meantime, she said, the public should be informed of the risks and how to protect themselves.
For more commentary, see Guy Crittenden’s blog for today, Friday, December 2. (Click on word “blog” on left side of home page, in red.)
We’ll follow the story for readers, but in the meantime you can track these events at the following websites:
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality: http://www.deq.state.la.us/
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org/