The Trash Blog

Zombie Landfill

In the Ninth Ward a 52-unit townhouse complex is vacant and collapsing. After Katrina, a lot of buildings in this area of New Orleans never got repaired. There are many reasons for this, but for the Press Park complex the disrepair looks like it will be permanent.

Fences

Large sections of the neighborhood have been fenced off. Signs warn that the area is under video surveillance and that trespassers will be prosecuted. The contrast of homes in such disrepair with such a well-constructed fence was moving. The gate, however, was not locked.

The buildings are surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire a la mode. Several of the townhouses look like someone smashed the roof and walls in with a giant’s baseball bat, others are still filled with the household wreckage of the people who used to live there. Jungle plants are growing out of the shattered windows and the rubble of collapsed walls and roofs scatters the grass. Despite the devastation, someone is still mowing the lawn.

Tires clog some of the street drains. A couch hangs out of one second story window. Some of the walls are marked with desultory graffiti, although the size of the vacant wasteland seems to have overwhelmed most of the would-be artists.

Houses

These townhouses are an example of the absolute devastation that Katrina brought about. However, an equally devastating problem is what you don’t see: the fifty years of garbage on which these buildings are standing.

This all got its start in 1909 when the City of New Orleans began using the swampy area as a dump – the Agriculture Street Landfill. Frequently on fire, the dump was known locally as Dante’s Inferno. It was upgraded from a dump to a sanitary landfill around 1948 and continued to be used for another 10 years. The debris from Hurricane Betsy was buried there in 1965. A year later, it was officially closed.

Doorway

I was going to say that this is one of the few Superfund sites where you can see a hose, highchair, and floral patterned couch, but it turns out that many of the Superfund sites are landfills, so it might not be that hard to find a similar batch of items.

All that filled land couldn’t go to waste, so in the late ’70s, the Agriculture Street Landfill was covered with a layer of sand and redeveloped for residential purposes. Over four hundred units, a school, and a shopping center were built on the northeastern half of the landfill.

Interior

A hasty evacuation combined with a good portion of the Mississippi River can lead to nightmares like this.

By the late ’80s, residents were complaining of garbage working its way to the surface as well as health problems. EPA investigations of the area showed elevated levels of lead, arsenic, and other carcinogens. The EPA called for remediation measures, consisting of the removal of top soil, installation of a geotextile membrane and new top soil. These measures were announced to be 99% complete in 2001.

Houseplant

This leafy green thing had grown in one of the windows inside the complex.

According to a firm representing many of the residents in a lawsuit, the EPA and the State of Louisiana both conducted earlier tests of the soil in the area, but did not release the results to residents, nor were residents advised about precautions that should be taken. The firm says that the EPA returned in 1993 to test the site again and told the residents that their soil was contaminated with more than 143 toxic and hazardous materials. Then the EPA declared the neighborhood a Superfund site.

The lawsuit is ongoing, but Hurricane Katrina flooded the area and wrecked many of the buildings, making the situation a bit of a moot point. According to a man who lives across the street from the buildings, they have been vacant ever since Katrina.

Neighborhood

Although these buildings look similar to the ones pictured above, they are on an entirely different block. It’s hard to capture the size of this complex with a camera. Several blocks were similarly abandoned, destroyed, and fenced.

This seems to me to be a pretty good example of why landfills cannot be counted as land reclaimed, even when they are closed, capped, and sealed. Even using closed landfills for parks and golf courses remains questionable, but to build houses on top of landfills seems a pretty poor idea.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on July 25, 2013 at 2:12 pm. It’s filed under Community, Environmental Justice, Landfills, MSW and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “Zombie Landfill

  1. Diana on said:

    I feel so bad for the people living here. In the bright side, if it wasn’t a cause of Katrina, people might still live there…which could had ended up being devastating for their health. Thank God for shelter.

  2. Uncle Chris on said:

    You might inquire how much of Boston is built on old landfills! Hope you are having a wonderful time! This was an excellent essay. What a blog!

    • Philip on said:

      Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, New York…the list of cities that have used landfills as foundations is probably as long as the list of major US cities. However, I think there is a difference between old landfills (pre-1920s) and new landfills: before the 1920s much of the garbage the US generated was ash (from coal heating) and other inert materials, like bone and glass. I think garbage has become a much trickier animal as the Twentieth Century progressed. Now we throw away cell phones, tons of plastic, and household cleaners. As always, we enjoy your comments!

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Landfills should not have residential housing on top of them. However, I don’t know that I would agree that landfills cannot be reclaimed in some usable fashion. Certainly not housing, perhaps not even recreation, but I’m sure we could find some productive use for them once they are properly capped. Obviously, the best solution would ne to elimimate the need for them through better waste management or waste reduction. But this will take some time to change public habits and create new technology. Not unlike our energy situation. But you two are definitely helping the public habit part of the equation. I applaud your efforts.

    • Uncle Chris on said:

      I join your father in applauding your efforts! And, I am reminded of an afternoon on a roller coaster golf course in Phoenix . . .

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