I was pleased to see a news item on the wires today concerning the New Orlenas ASL site, a notorious old Superfund landfill that was submerged by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Although I won’t take credit for the coverage of the unfolding story (and I wasn’t the only one to worry about contamination in general), I will take credit for being the first journalist to write specifically about the ASL site and figure out from map overlays that it was submerged under floodwater, soon after the hurricane hit.
(I reproduce the intial news item below, that we covered in more detail in the subsequent print magazine.)
I’d like to share with readers my frustration in trying to share this story with the major news outlets in the U.S. and one happy outcome. I have contacts in the USA who know producers at CNN, NBC, ABC etc. and they put me in touch with those producers; I emailed those producers the story, and never heard back. I could understand why they were focused on the humanitarian crisis in the early days of the event, but what frustrated me was that after some time, TV stations like CNN started to “jump the shark” a bit and show highly repetitious footage and run stories that seemed increasingly frivolous. It looked to me like they were trying to fill air time, and were desperate for a fresh angle.
That’s why I couldn’t understand them ignoring not just the contamination story in general (there was very little perspective or detail offered to viewers) but this especially scary “made for prime time” angle of the flooded Superfund site. But there you go, you never can figure what the TV stations and larger papers are going to cotton on to.
Then an independent producer who sells his stuff to major networks got hold of my story and pitched it. Someone at National Public Radio (NPR) took an interst, but did nothing with the story. I was told to expect a call any time. No call came. I then found out that a reporter at NPR took my story and developed her own version, which ran on NPR. She gave me no attribution at all. I actually sent her an email and told her that her actions felt like intellectual property theft to me. I was steamed, as was the independent producer who had promoted the story in the first place (and had conducted a pre-interview with me on the phone.) She (predictably) blew me off with an email saying she had the idea anyway and other people had contacted her about the ASL site and so on. (Yeah, sure.)
So it was satisfying when yet another producer for NPR called me out of the blue, having independently stumbled across my ASL site story by Googling on the internet. He was intrigued and conducted an interview over the phone. His interview with me ran on a highly popular morning program that runs during the rush hour, which is when most people have their radios turned on in their cars. The show has about half a million listeners. I was very satisfied that at last my version of the story got out, with my name attached to it.
As an aside, a technician attended my end of the phone interview, because it had to be synced digitally with the NPR studio in the U.S. After he heard the interview, he commented that he has a lot of experience with that NPR radio show and he suggested that of the 15 minute conversation, about four minutes would actually make it to air after editing. And he added that it would likely be the most sensational statements I made, quoted out of context. When I heard the program, I found he was absolutely right. The interview was quite good, but the producers definitely ran with the most “shocking” statements, minus the more subtle context.
The whole experience made me glad I work for a trade magazine where we can take the time and space to tell stories in more detail and in context, and not the superficial radio or TV media, where that sometimes ephemeral “media is the message.”
Postscript: Over time I’ll follow up on this story and find out what the government does (or does not do) about investigating possible contamination from the old landfill, and a couple of others that were also submerged by Katrina’s floodwaters.
Now, for those of you who missed the story the first time, here’s what we ran on our website on September 1st.
“Love Canal-type landfill submerged in New Orleans floodwaters”
A Solid Waste & Recycling magazine exclusive
Overlooked in many news reports about the unfolding storm disaster in the southern United States, especially in the City of New Orleans, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, is a potentially dramatic pollution issue related to a toxic landfill that sits under the flood waters right in the city’s downtown, according to map overlays of the flooded area. The situation could exacerbate the already dire threat to human health and the environment from the flood waters.
The Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL) is 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. A few years ago the site, which sits underneath and beside houses and a school, was fenced and covered with clean soil. However, three feet or more of flood waters could potentially cause the landfill’s toxic contents – the result of decades of municipal and industrial waste dumping – to leach out.
Houses and buildings that were constructed in later years directly atop parts of the landfill. Residents report unusual cancers and health problems and have lobbied for years to be relocated away from the old contaminated site, which contains not only municipal garbage, but buried industrial wastes such as what would be produced by service stations and dry cleaners, manufacturers or burning. The site was routinely sprayed with DDT in the 1940s and 50s and, in 1962, 300,000 cubic yards of excess fill were removed from ASL because of ongoing subsurface fires. (The site was nicknamed “Dante’s Inferno” because of the fires.)
The ASL can be thought of a sort of Love Canal for New Orleans -– and now it sits under water.
The ASL site is three miles south of Lake Pontchartrain and about 2.5 north-northeast of the city’s central business district (roughly halfway between the old French Quarter and the shore of Lake Pontchartrain).
Disturbingly, the site is also very close to the Industrial Canal Levee, a section of which collapsed and allowed flood waters to pour in, almost directly in the direction of the ASL site.
Government reports describe ASL as being “bounded on the north by Higgins Boulevard and south and west by Southern Railroads right-of-ways. The eastern boundary of the landfill extends from the cul-de-sac at the southern end of Clouet Street, near the railroad tracks to Higgins Boulevard between Press and Montegut Streets.”
Locate that site on a map (see websites below), and then overlay published maps of New Orleans flooding, and one finds the old toxic landfill is situated right in the middle of a huge area of three-foot flooding. That industrial area is almost continuously connected with water to the downtown and northern areas of the city. It’s not outlandish to consider the possibility that toxic waste from the landfill may mix with floodwaters and spread far beyond the old landfill site.
Although the humanitarian rescue operation must take precedence at the current time, authorities and the public must not overlook this pollution situation, which in both the near and long-term may be dangerous to human health and the environment. We must hope that emergency responders will investigate this site as soon as possible and take steps to mitigate potential off-site migration of hazardous materials. It may be that sandbag walls are required here, as well as on the broken levees.
This magazine will update the situation as more information becomes available.
Story prepared by Guy Crittenden, editor. Contact 705-445-0361 or firstname.lastname@example.org (See useful websites below.)
This website offers the Appendix to the government Public Health Assessment and further technical details about the site, plus a small map at the end.
Environmental Justice Case Study website offers a detailed description of the Agriculture Street Landfill, and the history of pollution problems and residents seeking to relocate:
NBC-17.com website offers interactive map of New Orleans flooded areas. (Look near top of blue sidebar at right beside main story for “Interactive: New Orleans’ Damage.”)
Google map of New Orleans can be pulled up at this website. Enter “Higgins Blvd., New Orleans” to get the approximate location of the landfill, then compare this with the NBC-17 map. (Note: you can zoom in and out, and toggle around this Google map, and also hit “satellite” in the upper right to switch from map view to a satellite view of the terrain.)