Laying the Groundwork

As a Vietnamese-American community plants an organic community garden, it fights the state over a nearby landfill.



Several miles east of downtown New Orleans, down a long, ghostly stretch of Chef Menteur Highway, beats the youthful heart of a revived Vietnamese-American community. The modest yards in Village de l'Est are overflowing with lemon and orange trees. Mustard greens grow from window boxes, and a pile of bleached crab shells signal compost in the ground — as well as a priest's vision of making his people whole again.

Sitting in his rectory office in Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, a jovial but focused Rev. Vien Nguyen describes his community's emerging urban farm, a final piece of its rebuilding process. "The vision here is that the 20-acre sustainable, organic garden will be divided into three areas. One will be the farmers' market. It will be a plaza around a lotus pond, with a place for produce, a place for freshly prepared food and then another place for livestock," Nguyen says.

There's more.

'We will have a centralized playground for small children, those whose grandparents are working out in the garden. The garden will be surrounded by bamboo, intended to minimize the impact on the community as well as provide both timber and the edible variety of shoots."

The soft-spoken director and coordinator for the farm, Peter Nguyen, interjects that biodiesel tractors, part of the farm's sustainable package, are up and running. "They smell good," says Father Nguyen. "Smells like fried chicken."

Father Nguyen's eyes shine as he discusses the bonds between his people, their culture and the land. The garden he describes will nurture traditional social roles, revitalize spiritual strength and provide an economic opportunity for the Vietnamese-American people living in Village de l'Est — without harming the environment. Nguyen goes on to describe the various plots that will be available, both commercial and community-owned, in addition to space for raising free-range chickens and goats.

'The post-Katrina catch," he pauses, "is the need to provide clean water."

The need for Village de l'Est to contain and monitor water quality arose when the community's traditional irrigation source, the Lagoon Maxent, became contaminated with fecal coliforms after Hurricane Katrina. Water quality is not the only hurdle the community faces in establishing an environmentally safe and successful urban farm. The storm surge that swamped eastern New Orleans left a legacy of saline soils. Worse, says Father Nguyen, are the thousands of acres of dumping grounds that riddle the area. Sites, legal and illegal, crop up regularly. The community has fought at least three since the storm, he says.

'So, this seems prime ground not for picking but for dumping," the priest says, laughing.

It is the dump closest to home, a construction and demolition — or "C&D" — landfill located at 16600 Chef Menteur Hwy., filled with debris from hurricane-destroyed homes, that the community believes poses an immediate and severe threat, according to their spokesman.

Two years ago, on Feb. 4, 2006, a community admired for its extraordinary rate of recovery unveiled its own rebuilding and redevelopment plan. Ten days later, Mayor Ray Nagin invoked emergency powers and signed an executive order suspending local zoning ordinances and allowing Waste Management to develop the Chef Menteur landfill 1.6 miles from the Vietnamese-American community. Under an agreement signed at the same time, the city was awarded a 22 percent share of the landfill's revenue.

Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) already had approved Waste Management's request for the "Emergency Disaster Cleanup Site" and issued a Water Quality Certification. Under an Emergency General Permit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency authorization allowing Waste Management to commence dumping while the Corps continued to evaluate that company's application for a permit.

All landfills in New Orleans need "conditional use" permits. In normal times, getting one requires approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Had the landfill's operators, Waste Management of Louisiana, sought a permit the conventional way, its chances of success would have been slim. The Planning Commission had rejected similar plans for a C&D landfill at the site twice in the past decade.

Paul Templet, former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told Gambit Weekly in June 2006 that he couldn't understand why DEQ allowed the Chef Menteur landfill to open, even after Katrina. "It's a subterfuge of the law," Templet said. "This landfill will turn toxic."

The Vietnamese-American community and others protested the landfill even before it opened. As a result of their efforts, the site is now closed — though not yet officially. The community is a co-litigant in three lawsuits against the dump, two of which they hope will lead to a clean-closure of the facility. That means all debris would be removed from the pit and the site would be returned to its pre-landfill condition. Other plaintiffs in the suits include Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and the Green Zone Task Force.

DEQ, a defendant in all three cases, maintains that clean-closure is not necessary and that merely "capping and closing" the site will render it safe. Cherly Nolan, assistant secretary of the Office of Environmental Services at DEQ, says the department was able to approve the landfill in part because the site had been processed before the storm.

'Does it meet the buffer-zone requirements? Is the soil condition protective of groundwater? That's part of what the permit review process was," Nolan says. "That application had been submitted and processed previously. Public input had even been solicited. So we had all that information for the Chef Menteur site. A different site may not have had all that information."

Attorney Lisa Jordan of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic takes a different view. In order for DEQ to approve an official closure of the landfill, there must first be a proper review of the opening procedures that were waived during emergency operations, she says.

'What they're trying to do is approve the closure without ever having looked at the original question of whether it should have ever opened in the first place," says Jordan, who represents plaintiffs in the litigation. "Our argument to the Corps and to DEQ is, "You can't do that.' The way that it works, with the Corps anyway, is that if they decide that the permit should not have been issued, then legally the property has to be returned to its pre-project condition, which is exactly what the clients want."

Referring to his community's agriculturally rooted practices, Father Nguyen says closure as planned by DEQ "could lead to an end of a way of life for the community." His fear is that toxins from the site could contaminate the soil and water in the community and its new gardens.

DEQ disagrees with the notion that the landfill's contents will harm the community or the environment. In fact, current hurricane debris disposal procedures include several layers of oversight.

'The crews out picking stuff off the curb have monitors on them," says Dwight Bradshaw, a commander for hurricane response at DEQ. "You've got spotters and pickers overlooking the landfill's face, and you've got hired inspectors watching from towers and the landfill face. As far as specific debris, its probably one of the best landfill operations in the country."

Bradshaw also downplays the significance of occasional lapses in oversight.

'There's always a chance that a flashlight battery might slip through and somebody poking around might find one, but what significance is that? How is a flashlight battery that's buried in a landfill 2 miles from where you live going to hurt you? It can't. In order for something to hurt you, you have to be exposed to it," he concludes.

The Vietnamese-American community and LEAN argue that DEQ used its emergency authority to allow additional "waste streams" mixed with C&D debris to be dumped into the landfill after Katrina. Despite the DEQ's efforts to enforce the rules, the group says they have seen the contents of the landfill and that it does in fact contain toxic material. Their fears have been heightened by DEQ and Waste Management's refusal to allow testing of the material in the landfill or of the air and water at the site. Marylee Orr, executive director of LEAN, and Father Nguyen both express frustration at the lack of cooperation and trust between the litigating parties.

'Our experts went on the face of the landfill and saw some things that caused some concerns," says Orr. "At that time we understood that the next day we were going to be allowed on the site to do some testing. And then we were absolutely barred from the site and told we weren't allowed to do the testing. They told us that our experts could ride on a bus and look through a window at the way they had sorted debris at the curb. They didn't understand why the community was disappointed that our experts couldn't actually see and inspect what was really there."

Father Nguyen concurs.

'When we went out on the face of the waste pile, after they had already combed through and put a layer of dirt on top of it, what we found and what our experts from LSU found in the waste pile was — you name it — household chemical products, petroleum products. We found electronic materials. We found toner, paint cans, petroleum bottles, medical waste, furniture, carpets, treated wood and everything else. And then at the bottom of the pile there was water flowing from it — brownish filmy water," he says.

'We have seen how the crews work and by policy the crew was not allowed to dig into the pile. They only look at the top. We're not concerned with the top, we're concerned with the other number of feet going down."

DEQ's Bradshaw insists that the state cannot allow opponents onto the landfill because it's too dangerous. "You could get run over by a truck or a bulldozer," he says. Bradshaw offers that an alternative to measuring what's in the landfill is to have a look at everything that's been kept out. Though the community offered to pay for the insurance and the EPA offered to pay for the work, the DEQ still refused to allow testing.

Unable to test for themselves, opponents of the landfill have continued to hire experts to analyze available data, including DEQ's data, which is public and made available on the department's Web site (

Wilma Subra, environmental consultant, chemist and MacArthur Genius Award-winning scientist, analyzed air-quality testing from the Chef Menteur site and concluded that the landfill matter is harmful. "When the DEQ put its monitor in a position that received the wind after it went across the landfill, they actually found the chemicals that cause what we call "the rotten egg smell' that the community has been complaining about."

The chemicals to which Subra is referring — detected on Nov. 9, 2007 — include sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, non-methane organic carbons and methane.

'Those chemicals are respiratory irritants. So, if you have bronchitis or asthma, it causes an asthma attack — and there could be a whole bunch of respiratory impacts. When [DEQ] looked at those numbers, they felt that they weren't that bad, but in fact there is a cumulative effect, and in fact we don't know whether or not those were the highest levels of the day [or] those were just at the time they were actually sampling."

Subra's analysis of air quality tests clashes with that of DEQ. Bijan Sharafkhani, DEQ administrator for solid waste, reports that results from the Mobile Air Monitoring Lab (MAML) on Nov. 9, 2007, did not indicate a threat to the community. The carbon dioxide "hits" were actually emissions from the engine that transports the monitoring lab, Sharafkhani says. "It's like an RV van that was running."

Though previously believed to be benign, contents of even standard C&D landfills have recently been deemed harmful, but DEQ's Bradshaw says such reports are overstated or don't apply locally. "It's been other parts of the country that, as far as I know, we've really had trouble with sheetrock in C&D landfills," Bradshaw says. "We just haven't seen it. We haven't had problems with it. We haven't seen that as being an issue here."

State Sen. Ann Duplessis (D-New Orleans), whose district includes the Vietnamese-American community, has been involved in ongoing negotiations relating to testing. Duplessis says the community's concerns have fallen on deaf ears. "There is some fear that they might find something," Duplessis says. "If we go in and find there is some cleanup that needs to be done, then the question is who pays for it?"

Duplessis says if DEQ has no fears about what might be at the site, then the state should at least provide a "comfort level" to the community by allowing joint testing.

The community's primary concern, beyond what's in the dump, is that its toxic contents will leak out and contaminate its surroundings. The landfill area, deemed by the Army Corps of Engineers to be among the "waterways of the U.S.," is hydraulically connected to surrounding waters, including the Maxent Canal, which is tidal.

Subra and other experts have determined that the hydrology of the site, together with the landfill's inadequate "lining," could lead to leakage and underwater migration of toxins from the waste pile. Those toxins, mixed with a watery-soil base, or "leachate," could contaminate surface water and ground water, which in turn would impact the Bayou Sauvage wetland adjacent to the landfill. In addition, evaporation of contaminated water could contaminate soil and air for miles around.

'It could happen very quickly, and it will happen over a long period of time because of the waste that's been deposited in there," Subra says.

Inadequate lining of the landfill is another reason to clean-close the dump, its opponents say.

Waste Management and DEQ say a subsurface geologic investigation was conducted at the site prior to Waste Management's acquisition of it, and archeologists were employed to patch any breaches in the natural lining of the pit. In addition, Waste Management says it took soil samples and tested the permeability of the disposal area. According to Waste Management spokesman Marc Ehrhardt, test results proved that the site's lining was more than adequate. "It was so dense [with low-permeability clay] that it actually exceeded the state and federal permeability requirements for a recompacted clay liner at municipal solid waste landfills," Ehrhardt says.

Sharafkhani, speaking for DEQ, agrees that the pit is well sealed and appropriate for containing construction and demolition material. The idea that water could migrate from the site is "definitely not a problem," he says.

Landfill opponents have asked to test water at the site — to no avail. Waste Management maintains that a water sample collected on March 20, 2007 — approximately one year after the first debris had been put there — showed nothing that would pose a potential threat to human health or the aquatic environment. The test was conducted by the City of New Orleans under the direction of DEQ.

Subra offered a conflicting view of that data. She told a U.S. Senate committee in February 2007 that debris in the landfill is creating leachate that "threatens the health and safety of the environment and those who live in the area."

She cited EPA analytical lab reports that she says confirm her conclusion that fluids moved into and out of the landfill from April through August 2006. In a later telephone interview, Subra said that groundwater would continue to be in contact with the waste deposited in the Chef Menteur landfill because of a lack of proper lining at the site.

Dr. Paul Kemp, a geologist, professor with the LSU Hurricane Center and vice president of the National Audubon Society's Gulf Coast Initiative, presented a written affidavit in 2006 supporting Subra's concerns about the landfill's liner. Based on an analysis of three sets of boring samples, including a set made for Waste Management in 2006, Kemp says the landfill's lining is cause for concern.

'In some places you would have a very thin, or in some places, no barrier. Certainly what was in the borings was not enough to give you confidence that pit was naturally contained by impermeable clay," Kemp said.

Prior to the election of Gov. Bobby Jindal, landfill opponents dealt with DEQ through former assistant secretary Dr. Chuck Carr Brown. The opponents hope to see a turnaround under Jindal, particularly since Brown has been replaced.

'We did not have a lot of success with Chuck Carr Brown," says Jordan of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. "Things could probably only get better now."

Cherly Nolan, Brown's replacement, indicates that DEQ remains of the same mind, however. "Nothing has changed since Dr. Brown has left," she says. "We are going to move forward with the closure as planned unless something changes."

As it stands, the modified closure plan requests that the 200,800 cubic yards of waste matter in the landfill remain at the site, which would be officially closed and capped. The plan requires no post-closure monitoring of any kind. Official "closure" — or an alternative, such as "clean-closure" — could tread on the courts' decisions in two of the three cases regarding a "404 permit," a reference to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. That section requires a permit for dredging or putting fill material into any waterway of the United States.

Pete Serio, the Army Corps of Engineers' regulatory chief in New Orleans, says the Corps is nearing the end of the permitting process, which includes a complete environmental analysis of the project to see how it affects the surrounding ecosystem. Serio hopes that in the next month or two the Corps will make its final decision.

'Basically the only thing that we're doing in our permit is we're going to require them to remove the earth plug that they put in that cuts off the hydrology to the surrounding area," Serio says. "They're going to have to remove that and put a weir in its place. The weir is a water control structure that will help regulate water flow into and out of the landfill area."

Ultimately, he says, there will be three weirs on the project site. Two will connect the site to the Maxent Canal, allowing water to flow from the landfill into the Maxent Canal — but not from Maxent Canal into the landfill. The third weir will connect an adjacent storm-water retention pond to the trash-filled cell. The purpose of the weirs is to facilitate drainage of rainwater off the site, according to Serio.

In other words, the Corps wants to make sure that water from the landfill flows into the surrounding area to some "regulated" degree — even though that is precisely what many in the Vietnamese-American and environmental communities fear the most.

Across the street from the sustainable garden site, ground has been broken for a new senior housing center in Village de l'Est. The center will replace lost housing for many storm-displaced seniors, who comprised most of the community's gardeners before the storm.

The garden site is in the process of being drained. Several partners are on board with the plan to provide technical assistance, including the National Alliance of Vietnamese-American Service Agencies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tulane School of Architecture, LSU's School of Landscape Architecture and the University of Montana.

Father Nguyen and his gardeners also have received backing from John Besh, renowned chef and owner of four of New Orleans' finest restaurants: August, La Provence, LÜke and Besh Steakhouse.

'Sustainably produced products have been my sounding board for the past 18 years" says Besh, who is deeply committed to local farming. For more than a decade, the chef has raised cattle on the Northshore, feeding them spent barley from local breweries. Potato peelings and other scraps from his four restaurants fill the troughs of his Berkshire pigs. He provides seeds for local farmers to grow the kind of tomatoes he likes to buy. Despite his best efforts, Besh says he can't get everything he needs in Louisiana — yet.

The former Marine's voice carries a clear message: His network of organically woven local partnerships that supply exceptional ingredients for his restaurants is ready to invest in Village de l'Est. "The fact is that our onion, celery and garlic come from somewhere out West, raised by who knows what. Why not take that $4 million a year that's in our budget and spend it here?" Besh says.

Besh and Father Nguyen share like-minded goals that fortify one another. "It's really just beautiful to witness someone in this day and age who has the foresight and also the guts to see that this is done right," the chef says.

Despite the travails of litigation and the threat of contamination, Besh has faith that the community will find a solution. "I know in the end this will work out," he says. "It's too important not to."

Father Nguyen looks forward to an upcoming meeting with Besh and four other chefs who are coming to discuss the gardens and the foods they are eager to buy. The community continues to test its own soils and to make preparations for the 3 to 5-acre retention pond where it will retain, capture and filter water for the gardens — and for fishing.

Father Nguyen's vision ultimately extends beyond Village de l'Est. "It's time for us as a state to be one of the leaders, not the last of the followers," he says. "This is our future."

Hien Pham, 74, tends a garden in his community in Eastern New Orleans. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Hien Pham, 74, tends a garden in his community in Eastern New Orleans.
Chef John Besh, who owns four restaurants in the area, plans to buy produce from the sustainable organic garden in Village de l'Est. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef John Besh, who owns four restaurants in the area, plans to buy produce from the sustainable organic garden in Village de l'Est.
Members of the Vietnamese-American community in eastern New Orleans have protested the landfill since it opened after Hurricane Katrina.
  • Members of the Vietnamese-American community in eastern New Orleans have protested the landfill since it opened after Hurricane Katrina.
Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, has been an ardent supporter of his community, first leading the fight to close the landfill and now spearheading efforts to create the community garden. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, has been an ardent supporter of his community, first leading the fight to close the landfill and now spearheading efforts to create the community garden.
Attorney Lisa Jordan of the Environmental Law Clinic at Tulane University says residents of Village de l'Est fear water that leeches through refuse left at the landfill will contaminate the surrounding area. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Attorney Lisa Jordan of the Environmental Law Clinic at Tulane University says residents of Village de l'Est fear water that leeches through refuse left at the landfill will contaminate the surrounding area.
Hy Nguyen, 86, volunteers to help clear land for the community garden at Village de l'Est.
  • Hy Nguyen, 86, volunteers to help clear land for the community garden at Village de l'Est.

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