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Feature Story
Photo of refrigerators at the Old Gentilly landfill
Rough Burial

by Elizabeth Royte

After Katrina, what does Louisiana do with 22 million tons of toxic debris?

Winter days in the French Quarter still commence with the hosing of the previous night's excesses from the sidewalks, but the district's few lunchtime patrons are dressed for drudgery, not revels. New Orleans remains a somber place. During daylight hours, this is a city unerringly and unceasingly focused on recovery. A jungle camo T-shirt popular among visiting emergency workers reads "Baghdad on the Bayou."

Beyond the central business district, National Guard troops prowl the city in brown and green jeeps. The Army Corps of Engineers has awarded three $500 million contracts for debris removal, and platoons of subcontractors roll through New Orleans's low-lying districts, directing thousands of foot soldiers in orange vests, hard hats, and work boots. Entire neighborhoods appear deserted; the only obstacles to parking are the ever-accumulating mounds of household chattel -- the contents of a city turned inside out.

Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates that Katrina created 22 million tons of debris in the southeastern part of the state. The wreckage of the World Trade Center, by comparison, was 1.5 million tons, and it lay mostly within a few city blocks. Katrina's is strewn across 90,000 square miles. By early December, when I visited the city, only 26 percent of the residential and public debris in Orleans Parish had been removed; a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokeswoman expected the cleanup to continue at least through this summer. Since tens of thousands of residents still hadn't mucked out their homes, and city officials had already tagged more than 2,500 unsound structures for demolition, new massifs of waste will materialize on curbs for some time.

But where will everything go? And what will become of the hazardous material that's inevitably mixed in with the benign?

In an ordinary trash-producing year, New Orleans generates about 350,000 tons of waste, 6 percent to 9 percent of which gets recycled. Now, everything flows in a continuous torrent that debris managers struggle to comb into five roaring streams: woody debris; construction and demolition debris; "white goods," such as refrigerators, air conditioners, water heaters, and trash compactors; household hazardous waste; and electronic waste. The process borders on chaos. Half a dozen government agencies have jurisdiction over different types of waste, the rules change as one crosses parish lines, and information is typically offered with a sense of contingency. "We can burn the mulch," for example, doesn't necessarily mean that mulch is being burned.

The mulch comes from nearly 12 million cubic yards of oaks, magnolias, and other vegetation strewn about by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The state has authorized burning to reduce this volume, and also that of some non-recyclable household debris. Erik Olson, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who recently visited New Orleans, worries that some wood used in construction and furniture has been treated with preservatives that can release toxins, like chromium and dioxin, upon combustion. "We've heard from citizens that there is burning, but the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] refuses to give us detailed information on how they're handling debris," he says. And then there's an entomological caveat: As many as 80 percent of the city's trees are infested with Formosan termites. The state Department of Agriculture, which keeps termite maps, decreed that mulch originating in termite zones can be spread only where these insects already occur. Most of the city's chipped wood is being trucked directly to landfills, where it's used to cover the trash and assist in erosion control.

But as organic materials -- like wood and brush -- biodegrade in the anaerobic confines of a landfill, they give off methane, a potent greenhouse gas. While 21 states ban yard waste from landfills -- both to preserve space and to decrease the generation of methane and leachate -- Louisiana's landfills, post-Katrina, are moving in the opposite direction. Moreover, when methane and carbon dioxide (from decomposing wood) rise from landfills, they set off a chemical reaction that strips from the other waste such toxic organic compounds as benzene and toluene, which are then transported to the surface. Polyvinyl chloride occurs in roofing and insulation materials, vinyl siding, and window frames -- all ubiquitous in the thousands of truckloads of debris dumped daily at six area landfills.

Construction and demolition (C&D) debris is the most heterogeneous of Katrina's waste streams, containing both the slimed and moldy contents of houses and the houses themselves. Some household materials, meanwhile, are excluded from this rough burial, whether because of their intrinsic worth or their intrinsic toxicity. White goods are coveted for their scrap value. In a staging area set aside for this material at the Old Gentilly landfill, which sits in a cypress swamp east of the city on a road fringed with illegal dump sites, a team of workers drains the appliances' refrigerants for reuse. Another team, known as the food guys, dumps the putrefying contents of the refrigerators and wraps them, burrito-style, in sheets of plastic. The air here is eye-wateringly bad. Gulls kettle over the decomposed food; workers wear moon suits and respirators. The reeking burritos won't be buried at Old Gentilly, which is unlined. Instead they're bound for River Birch, a lined landfill that already entombs 36 million pounds of spoiled meat and seafood collected from processing and export facilities in the port. As for the white goods themselves, by late December more than 230,000 appliances, squashed into six-foot-long rectangles, had been hauled to a scrap yard and sold.

Three thousand trucks enter Old Gentilly each day; a spotter in a two-story tower peers down into each load and orders the removal of any hazardous materials he or she can make out. But the trucks come fast and thick, their contents are jumbled, and spotters aren't paid to poke through the mess. Moreover, the drivers are paid by the cubic yard, so they have no incentive to separate.

But plenty of household hazardous waste is teased out. Residents or their proxies haul it from ruined houses and set it in discrete piles on the curb: small collections of paint cans, pesticides, and solvents, the kind of stuff relegated to high shelves in garages. Household electronics too are set apart: TV and computer monitors contain between four and eight pounds of lead. Cell phones, handheld video games -- anything with a circuit board -- often contain chromium, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, nickel, zinc, and copper, all of which can potentially leach from landfills.

EPA crews troll the city for electronic waste, which they transfer to a Georgia-based company that removes batteries, cathode-ray tubes, mercury bulbs, leaded glass, and toner cartridges for recycling. What remains is sorted into metals and plastic, then shredded and sold to commodities processors. By late December, a unified command composed of the EPA, the Coast Guard, and the Louisiana DEQ had collected about 90,000 hurricane-damaged televisions, computers, stereos, and other electronic equipment in seven parishes. There's plenty more to come.

East of the city, in a weedy lot shadowed by an abandoned incinerator, a different phalanx of EPA workers sorts through more than 12,000 pieces of household hazardous waste each day. Flammables and solvents go to a power plant hungry for their Btu value; pesticides and poisons end up at an incinerator licensed to burn hazardous waste; propane is recovered from tanks and canisters which are then either crushed and scrapped or painted for reuse. Lead from car and boat batteries is recovered for processors; bleach is poured into barrels, chemically neutralized, and discharged (under a federal permit) into waterways. Hunched over a small table, a field chemist runs tests on mystery compounds. "We've processed more than a million pounds of household hazardous waste," says James Augustyn, a site coordinator. Asked whether the folks mucking out houses are segregating all the hazardous stuff, he answers with an air of resignation. "They're supposed to, but it's impossible to get every single piece."

And that is the bottom line. No one is going to root out a mercury-containing thermostat from a 20-foot mound of rubbish. Not every car (Katrina left 360,000 storm-ruined vehicles on the streets) will be drained of its toxic fluids and scrapped for reuse. Not every desktop monitor will be transformed into something shiny and new.

If Katrina's cleanup seems to be proceeding slowly (and it is, especially for exiled residents eager to come home), officials blame the unprecedented scale of the operation and the complexity of the waste stream. "We want to reuse and recycle as much as we can," says John Rogers, a DEQ staff scientist. "We're diverting as much as we can from the landfill because we don't want to create problems down the line." Rogers is alluding to the cleanup after 1965's Hurricane Betsy, when debris was dumped indiscriminately into the Agriculture Street landfill, in the Lower Ninth Ward, and then covered with less than two feet of soil. In time, lead, arsenic, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons -- in all, some 50 carcinogenic compounds -- leached out, and the EPA in 1994 conferred Superfund status on the site (though not before houses, a community center, and a school were constructed atop it).

Everything has to go somewhere, the laws of nature state. Sluice the brown sediment, laced with oil and heavy metals, from your siding and the contaminated water drains into Lake Pontchartrain. Bury PVC pipes in a landfill and vinyl chlorides rise with the methane. We know, after decades of failing to manage Superfund sites, that poisons shunted elsewhere have a way of working their way back again, into the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

As winter turns to spring, it's impossible to say whether anyone is doing a good, or even an adequate, job of handling Katrina's fallout. The hurricane's toxic legacy has already been written, but it may be decades until we're able to comprehend it.

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Elizabeth Royte is the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (Little, Brown), a New York Times Notable Book and Washington Post Book World Book of the Year for 2005. A freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York, Royte has also contributed to the New Yorker, Harper's, and National Geographic.

Photographer Ed Kashi has traveled to more than 60 countries for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and Time, among others. His photo documentary, Aging in America: The Years Ahead (PowerHouse), was a finalist for the 2003 Pictures of the Year book award.

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council