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New Orleans dumps plenty, recycles little

New Orleans is dumping its debris by the truckload — and throwing away an opportunity to turn America’s costliest natural disaster into the nation’s greatest recycling effort, environmentalists say.
Jeremy Maxwell-Parish
Some wood and other materials from this New Orleans home were recycled but most debris around the city is simply sent to a landfill. Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the rush to rebuild, this hurricane-smashed city is dumping its debris by the truckload — and throwing away an opportunity to turn America’s costliest natural disaster into the nation’s greatest recycling effort, environmentalists say.

Every day, trucks rumble down the streets on their way to the Old Gentilly Landfill, a municipal dump in the swampiest part of the city, to unload the debris that homeowners and contractors have piled up on the curbs throughout New Orleans.

With large-scale home demolitions now beginning, there are no comprehensive, citywide plans to salvage and recycle building materials — things such as cypress and cedar boards, bricks, cinderblocks and roof tiles.

“We don’t have the time,” said John Rogers, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s recycling specialist. He cited the sheer volume of debris created by Katrina — 30 years’ worth of the stuff, officials say.

But environmentalists say that in the seven months since Katrina hit, there has been plenty of time for city, state and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to draw up contracts to recycle debris, buy recycling equipment and put people to work sorting through the rubble.

“I’m getting woken up every morning with demolition crews hauling off cedar beams, good stuff,” complained Oliver Houck, a Tulane University environmental law professor. “Once again, we’re a day late, a dollar short.”

Katrina generated about 25 million cubic yards of “green waste” — tree limbs, trunks, leaves, dead bushes — or enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome nearly twice. Some of that is being incinerated, and some is being used as cover at landfills.

No energy from debris
But other eco-friendly ideas have been shot down, or gone nowhere.

Among them: a proposal to put debris at the Old Gentilly Landfill into a plasma furnace capable of generating energy-producing gas.

Some things are, in fact, being recycled. So far, flooded vehicles like cars, vans and trucks and hundreds of thousands of refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances have yielded about 280,000 tons of steel, according to the state.

As for the rest of the debris, some builders, restoration experts, artists and grass-roots organizations have seen value in it, but they are taking only a tiny bite out of the mountain of waste.

Stefano Velacka, a French Quarter jeweler fond of using recycled material, is making earrings, brooches and necklaces out of a copper roof that Katrina blew into the street.

“I’m set for 100 years,” Velacka said of all the trash in the city. The damage Katrina did is “ugly,” he said, “and I’m trying to bring the ugly back to beauty.”

In the Lower Ninth Ward, crews and volunteers with relief groups like Mercy Corps and AmeriCorps are “deconstructing” homes: salvaging bathroom fixtures and cypress wood. The material can be used to repair historic homes or give new places an old-world feel.

“It’s good lumber,” said Mercy Corps carpenter Preston Brownings. “If it’s kept dry, it will last forever.”

Doors in demand
In the Ninth Ward, a nonprofit recycling center called the Green Project is bustling these days, selling cut-rate lumber, furniture, lamps and other material taken from demolished homes and debris piles.

Doors have become hot commodities, said Sean Wilkerson, a 33-year-old donor who drove up with a load of wooden doors he had picked up on the streets. “All the doors (in the city) were kicked down by pet rescuers. Everybody’s looking for doors.”

As landfills grow higher, environmentalists worry that Louisiana is creating new problems for itself.

After Katrina struck, city, state and federal officials waived many environmental regulations governing such things as landfills, asbestos removal, oil refinery operations. The city’s environmental chief was also laid off; the post has since been refilled.

“We’re creating a massive environmental liability for the future,” said Forest Bradley-Wright of the Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans.