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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Orleans' Waste Woes

Air Date: Week of

Molly Peterson reports on the challenge of properly disposing the hundreds of thousands of cars ruined in the floods of Hurricane Katrina.


CURWOOD: It’s still hard to grasp the enormity of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma along the Gulf Coast. One measure is how much debris the storms left behind.

The Environmental Protection Agency now says that in Louisiana alone, 22 million tons of waste – everything from refrigerators to oak trees– will need to be disposed of. Reporter Molly Peterson found that hundreds of thousands of flooded cars constitute one disposal nightmare. And they're only a fraction of the cleanup task at hand.


PETERSON: Claiborne Avenue was once a center of black commerce in New Orleans. Along this stretch was like a grassy neighborhood park. Even after the freeway overhead blocked out the sun in the 60s, people have still gathered down here, on lawn chairs and around barbecues. But three months after the waters rose, Claiborne Street is still a graveyard of flooded cars.

Over here’s a brown Chevy pickup truck. In the truck bed there’s three air conditioners, one with a rusty metal tank attached. A few cars down there’s a gray Infiniti sedan with rings of sediment on it. It looks like striations, lines on a rock. It’s leaking coolant. There are 17 blocks of cars, just here, along Claiborne alone.

CARPENTER: Nobody was thinking, cars as a major problem. It’s debris, debris. I’m like, okay, it is debris, but we have to treat it differently. Where do you put 300,000 cars?

PETERSON: Three hundred thousand. And they’re not like other junk. Even an abandoned car is still property. Lieutenant Allen Carpenter of the Louisiana State Police says that’s why his officers, along with insurance-fraud investigators, have been cataloguing vehicle identification numbers in the field. Carpenter says taking time to identify cars and choose collection areas for them is risky. But letting towers and wreckers move in too quickly at first had its own cost.

CARPENTER: We had one instance in the city of New Orleans. Police officers had identified either vehicles that contained deceased persons, or near deceased persons, and those bodies were moved and the vehicles were gone before the group could come collect the bodies. It’s everybody’s got their own interest in doing this, but we have to do this in a lawful, orderly way.

PETERSON: Carpenter’s interest has been protecting property and clearing the streets safely. Others see flooded cars as a potential health hazard. Initial testing showed that New Orleans floodwaters did not contain high levels of carcinogens, like benzene. But Bob Stewart, from the auto repair advocacy group C-CAR Greenlink, says many waterlogged cars still contain heavy metals and bacteria.

STEWART: The flood waters that were there in New Orleans tested high for levels of raw sewage, of arsenic, of lead, so this was a very dangerous brew. And there are open spaces, compartments within a car that’s flooded, that may retain that water, and certainly, the sludge and residue after the floodwaters have subsided.

PETERSON: Insurance adjusters see the cars as tempting merchandise that could be sold to the unsuspecting. Mexican agencies and car importers fear that smugglers could sneak them across the border. All these concerns spurred the Louisiana legislature to take action. A bill requiring flood cars to be crushed and preventing their future sale is now awaiting Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s signature. But local parishes are still responsible for towing and disposing of abandoned cars. And some in private industry have been hoping to benefit by obtaining raw material for their scrap yards, without much luck so far.

TORRES: When you look at it in terms of tons, you know, we melt over 600,000 tons a year. And, so far, it’s been minimal, the impact of the scrap coming in.

PETERSON: Kevin Torres is vice president of Mississippi River Recycling in Laplace, west of New Orleans. Each flood car is worth around a hundred dollars there. They’re taking in truckloads of big appliances, too.

TORRES: Obviously, the enormity of the whole event has overwhelmed many agencies. There’s kind of some things upstream from us that are taking time, and the insurance companies, quite frankly, are overwhelmed, as well.

PETERSON: Torres says he believes business is picking up. Parishes are starting to contract for mass car removal. That parallels what’s happening with debris removal overall, as more people return to clean out or demolish houses.


PETERSON: The Old Gentilly landfill on the east side of Orleans Parish takes in what’s called “C & D” – sheet rock, wood, couches and mattresses. Louisiana environmentalists are already suing in federal court to close it. They say Old Gentilly isn’t ready for this kind of traffic. It’s got clay on the bottom – but not around two of its long sides – to prevent metals and waste leaching into soils.

But it’s unlikely to close any time soon. As much as a hundred thousand cubic yards of debris a day is coming in now. Each truck is stopped on the way in. From newly built wooden towers, Army Corps monitors and private waste managers look down into trucks to record their length and fullness.


PETERSON: Closer to the front of the landfill, Patrick Roth stands in another tower. He’s here to take payment for debris and to keep hazardous waste out.

ROTH: Every now and then we see ‘em with it, we turn ‘em around when they get it.

PETERSON: How often does that happen?

ROTH: What, about three, four, five times a day, maybe. It ain’t that much. I mean, everybody knows we don’t take it, you know. But they got some out-of-towners that don’t know no better, So. We’ll catch ‘em.

PETERSON: Roth says it’s a slow morning, though in one hour spotters pull out a gas can., computer monitors, a small television, a fire extinguisher. All are classified as hazardous wastes. None should be here – this landfill is not lined or monitored for it. The state says nowhere have environmental laws been compromised for cleanup. But Chuck Carr Brown of the state’s Office of Environmental Services says there’s no model for how to get rid of this much waste.

CARR BROWN: Let’s take 9/11. The amount of debris generated when the twin towers went down was 1.5 million tons, in a confined area. A few blocks. We have 22 million tons. That’s spread out over 90,000 square miles. That’s the size of Great Britain. Okay? You can only process so much at one time safely.

PETERSON: Brown says even if everything goes according to plan, it could be 18 months before the streets here are clear. For Living on Earth, I’m Molly Peterson in New Orleans.



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