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The New, Green New Orleans


New Orleans' longstanding practice of dumping wood, metal, plastic and other recyclables into landfills contradicts any notion of reusing resources to rebuild and sustain the city. "That's the opposite of sustainability. That's just crazy," says John Klingman, a professor of architecture at Tulane University and an expert in green construction. Sadly, buildings that are razed in Orleans Parish are simply carted off to a landfill. This practice deprives builders and citizens of any chance to reuse pieces of our city's architectural heritage — doorframes, doors, handmade bricks, elaborate millwork, slate roofing tiles and other building products. This is senseless, but there is a way to stop the insanity. TransLoad America, a company specializing in handling, recycling and disposing of waste, proposes building two waste-sorting and recycling facilities in New Orleans. These facilities are not landfills. Through a systematic series of sorting steps, TLA expects to recycle up to 70 percent of what it receives in construction and demolition debris. TLA's proposal has widespread support among local environmental groups, but promoters of existing and proposed landfills are trying to derail City Council approval of TLA's facilities. That would be a major setback to local recovery and recycling efforts.

To understand why TLA's facilities are needed, it's important to understand how its handling of construction and demolition debris differs from the current practice of hauling and landfilling. The first step is a simple one: immediately reusable resources, such as clean brick or undamaged wood, are culled from incoming debris. These materials are made available at no cost to environmental groups or residents to be used for rebuilding. After that, plastic, metal and glass are separated out and sent to recycling plants. Some of the wood is converted into energy pellets that can be used in power plants or made into logs that can be burned in wood stoves or fireplaces. Finally, the remaining nonprocessable materials are delivered by rail to a TLA landfill in St. Charles Parish.

TLA proposes two facilities — one on the Industrial Canal at Chef Menteur Highway exclusively for construction and demolition debris, and a second on the Michoud Canal in eastern New Orleans. The Michoud facility will handle construction and demolition debris as well as commercial solid waste from local businesses. Residue from commercial waste, after the recycling process, will be sealed in airtight, watertight bales and transported via train to a landfill in Alabama. No waste will stay in New Orleans.

Another advantage of TLA's process is its practice of transporting materials via rail. Trains produce less air pollution than diesel dump trucks, are more fuel efficient and are safer than truck transportation. Over the course of two years, a TLA facility in Newark, N.J., has saved more than 1.7 million gallons of diesel fuel by riding the rails. Trains also mean fewer trucks on the streets, which means less congestion and damage to local roads. TLA selected both its proposed New Orleans sites because of their proximity to existing rail lines.

If its facilities win City Council approval, TLA will make an initial investment of $20 million and employ 100 people between both plants. When TLA first began investigating the prospect of coming to New Orleans in 2006, in the wake of Katrina and at the onset of a massive recovery effort, company officials thought their proposals would be a good environmental fit. But, as often happens, politics also plays a role.

Even though the proposed facilities would be located in heavy industrial areas, TLA needs a "conditional use" permit from City Hall. That requires review by the City Planning Commission (which split 4-4, despite a favorable recommendation from its staff) and by the City Council. Eastern New Orleans has been traumatized by massive landfills, and citizens there are rightly anxious about any proposed waste-treatment plant. TLA has worked with city planners and community leaders to address concerns about the facilities. Now it's up to the City Council, which could consider TLA's applications this week. We urge the council to approve both proposals.

New Orleans should be a model of sustainability, yet we have no waste-disposal facilities that recycle.

TLA's supporters include Dr. Earthea Nance, director of infrastructure and environmental planning in the city's Office of Recovery Management, and Wynecta Fisher, director of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs. State Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose district comprises much of eastern New Orleans, also supports TLA's proposal. Other endorsements come from experts like Beverly Wright, executive director of Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Bo Fudickar, technology industry director for the state's Department of Economic Development.

Some worry that eastern New Orleans is becoming the city's dump. TLA's plants will have the opposite effect — they will make eastern New Orleans a vital part of the new, green New Orleans. The City Council should grant TLA's conditional use permits as soon as possible.

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