Battling the Chef Menteur Landfill

Vietnamese Americans dream of a new urban farm in New Orleans but fear post-Katrina environmental hazards.

By Kari Lydersen Dec 09, 2009

December 9, 2009

Photo: Like many in the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans, Tung Duc Tran grows vegetables native to Vietnam.

Tung Duc Tran’s backyard is a lush tangle of life. On a steamy New Orleans summer day, Tran, 80, leaves the cool of his small home to stroll under the trellises hung with bitter melons and fuzzy squash shading an assortment of carefully tended crops. The garden consumes the modest yard sloping down to the Maxent Lagoon, a canal whose waters are nearly obscured by an explosion of aquatic vegetation laced with a few old tires and other trash.
Like many elderly Vietnamese American people in the close-knit Versailles neighborhood on New Orleans’ east side, Tran grows his own vegetables to eat and share with friends and neighbors. But in recent years he has felt less confident consuming his produce, because he fears contamination from the lagoon that often spills over onto his land, and in the soil itself, which was swamped by the toxic floodwaters of Katrina four years ago.

Urban farming was key to helping the Vietnamese American community of about 20,000 become among the first to return to flood-ravaged homes and restart their lives after Katrina, with little assistance from government officials. They immediately planted small gardens, even outside FEMA trailers housed on a large vacant lot before moving back into their own homes. It took many months for a grocery store to reopen anywhere nearby, but urban farming provided them sustenance along with a sense of calm and cultural connection in trying times.
Now, because of fears of lasting contamination in the soil and the canals that crisscross the area, community leaders want to open a 20-acre urban farm where they can make sure the soil is safe and create a stable social environment for the mostly elderly farmers. The plan is spearheaded by Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, and the affiliated Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVCDC). They have worked with urban planners and architects from around the country and raised considerable grant money to develop a plan that includes a new venue for the popular Saturday market, community gathering spots, free-range livestock, aquaculture and individual plots for about 100 farmers.

Father Vien Nguyen thinks the urban farm the community has planned could help them survive another hurricane.
Photo by Kari Lydersen

They bought a piece of land that abuts the church and held a series of community meetings to log residents’ hopes and recommendations. Then, they turned those ideas over to teams of experts at Louisiana State University (LSU), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tulane’s school of architecture to design the farm and create a business plan. John Besch, one of New Orleans’ top chefs, has committed to buy produce.

But community leaders are afraid another legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the botched response to it could taint their dream. That would be the Chef Menteur landfill for Katrina demolition waste that sits just over a mile from the urban farm site. The landfill was hastily opened in the wake of Katrina, bypassing the usual community input and permitting processes required for such a facility.

This was convenient for both Waste Management, the giant national company that owned the landfill, and city officials. Residents and conservationists concerned about the adjacent Bayou Savage wetland preserve had defeated previous efforts to open a landfill there, but the fast-tracked post-Katrina process sidestepped any opposition. Meanwhile, the city got 23 cents per pound of trash deposited there, according to MQVCDC leaders, compared to 3 cents per pound at the nearby and also contested Gentilly landfill.

Normally, construction and demolition landfills are not required to have liners, since they are filled with dry, relatively benign waste. Katrina demolition waste is a different story: it includes the remains of homes soaked for days in toxic floodwater. Most of the destroyed homes were built in an era when lumber was regularly treated with now-illegal compounds containing arsenic.  

Chef Menteur was closed and capped in August 2006 in the face of intense opposition. Waste Management officials say the landfill’s contents are sealed within a natural bed of impermeable clay, and testing has shown no contamination problems. But contamination could increase over time as things in the landfill break down. Tulane’s Environmental Law Center has already recorded arsenic in increasing levels surrounding the landfill. There are no requirements for ongoing monitoring of air, soil or groundwater contamination that residents and environmental engineers fear could emanate from the site for years to come.

An illegal dump of the type common in New Orleans East.
Photo by Kari Lydersen

The landfill is essentially a pit in the midst of wetlands. Nearly nestled in the water table as it is, community leaders and environmentalists fear a multitude of contaminants could now or in the future migrate into the surface and groundwater and hence the site of their urban farm. They also fear hydrogen sulfide gas released from deteriorating gypsum in the landfill. Vien Nguyen and other community leaders are demanding city officials empty the landfill and remediate the site or, at the very least, institute long-term groundwater and air monitoring.

“You dig down a few feet, and you hit water,” said Peter Nguyen, no relation to Vien, former agriculture director of the MQVCDC. “That’s why we’re afraid some of that water will reach us and that when it does it will be a big health problem. We don’t want to find out 10 or 15 years from now when kids are getting cancer.”

Chef Menteur isn’t the only environmental hazard in the area. The once-closed Gentilly landfill nearby was reopened without usual due process to handle Katrina demolition waste, which was simply piled on top of the existing clay cap. Environmental groups fought to reduce or stop the mounds of waste being dumped in Gentilly—at its height, more than 100,000 cubic yards a day. A court order eventually limited it to about 19,000 cubic yards a day; it now accepts only about 5,000 cubic yards a day.    

Opponents are worried Gentilly is a disaster waiting to happen, since they think the waste being piled on top of the old landfill will lead it to collapse, causing a “hamburger effect” where the weight causes softer material to squash out the sides and possibly destabilize the nearby levee. Meanwhile, the woods and wetlands surrounding Versailles and the two landfills are riddled with illegal dumps—big piles and pools of all manner of household and industrial waste dumped brazenly amidst the tall weeds, likely leaching many toxic chemicals.

Even in the face of these environmental justice issues and the ever-looming threat of another catastrophic flood—levees were not bolstered in New Orleans East as they were in wealthier, more high- profile parts of the city—community leaders are determined to press forth with the farm. The church is currently in the process of developing a three-acre site as a pilot project to help secure funding for the farm, estimated to cost $5 million to launch. The more support and funds they get, Father Nguyen hopes, the more pressure for the city to remediate or at least monitor the landfill. “For us it’s not whether,” he said, “it’s when.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter for The Washington Post, In These Times and other media outlets, and author of the 2009 book Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says about the Economic Crisis.