Hurricane Katrina:

Continuing Debris Removal and Disposal Issues

GAO-08-985R: Published: Aug 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Aug 25, 2008.

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In 2005, as a result of Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,600 people lost their lives and more than a million were driven from their homes on the Gulf Coast. Tens of thousands of homes in New Orleans were flooded, many requiring either demolition or gutting before reconstruction. Nearly 3 years later, the New Orleans area still faces significant debris management issues and challenges. For example, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) stated that while the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated in July 2008 that it had funded about 16,900 home demolitions, an estimated 6,100 homes remained to be demolished around the New Orleans area. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) establishes programs and processes for the federal government to provide major disaster and emergency assistance to states, local governments, tribal nations, and others. FEMA has the responsibility for administering the provisions of the Stafford Act, including approving and funding the assistance provided under it. This assistance has been provided to the Gulf Coast under the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Framework (formerly called the National Response Plan). In New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps of Engineers) was the primary federal agency responsible for providing debris removal and disposal until it concluded its response activities in September 2007. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the coordinator of federal emergency support for oil and hazardous materials releases, also assisted the Corps of Engineers and LDEQ with debris removal and disposal and continues to undertake Katrina response activities, such as monitoring landfill operations. The federal law addressing the management of hazardous and other solid wastes--the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act--addresses nonhazardous solid wastes under subtitle D. The act prohibits "open dumping"--the disposal of solid waste in landfills failing to meet the relevant criteria--and requires state plans to prohibit the establishment of open dumps. RCRA provides EPA with limited authority to address environmental problems at solid waste landfills. The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 directed GAO to address certain activities related to debris management in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We briefed relevant committee staff on the results of our work on March 6, 2008, and held subsequent discussions with them in March and April 2008. We are following up with this report, which provides more detail on the topics covered in the briefing. This report describes (1) key plans and practices federal and state agencies are currently using to oversee debris removal and disposal in response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, (2) enforcement actions state and federal agencies have taken related to Katrina debris removal and disposal, and (3) actions by LDEQ and EPA in response to potential environmental issues at the Gentilly Landfill in New Orleans.

Key plans and practices state and federal agencies are using to oversee and implement debris removal and disposal in response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans include (1) a state emergency order covering debris removal and disposal at landfills, currently extended until August 29, 2008; (2) EPA "no action assurance" letters to LDEQ concerning asbestos emissions requirements related to building demolitions; and (3) EPA's asbestos emissions monitoring plan. The state emergency order broadens the state of Louisiana's definition of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Regarding asbestos practices, since 2006 EPA has not been enforcing certain Clean Air Act regulations for asbestos for homes demolished under government orders. In terms of oversight of debris removal and disposal activities, key practices that LDEQ and EPA are using include surveillance at landfills and other debris sites. The pace of home demolitions, which are now managed by the individual parishes, continues to be slow. As of May 15, 2008, LDEQ had issued 120 enforcement actions for Hurricane Katrina-related violations. Fifty-three of these actions involved solid waste, hazardous waste, or water program actions taken against businesses or individuals who, among other things, improperly disposed of C&D debris at unauthorized sites. In other enforcement actions, LDEQ worked with EPA, the Corps of Engineers, and the Louisiana National Guard in a joint effort to combat illegal dumping activities after the hurricane in an area east of New Orleans called the Almonaster Corridor. One of the landfills highlighted in our report, the Gentilly Landfill, is constructed on top of a former municipal waste landfill. EPA concluded that while there is no way "to protect against future Superfund liability absolutely"--particularly for a landfill--the use of the landfill appeared to be consistent with the types and volumes of wastes for which it was designed and permitted by the state. Finally, we are providing information on (1) the status of the Chef Menteur Landfill in New Orleans, (2) a disaster debris reduction pilot project in St. Bernard Parish that was scaled back prior to its implementation in June 2008, and (3) the effect of a debris provision in the Water Resources Development Act of 2007. First, the Chef Menteur Landfill, which was controversial because of its proximity to a national wildlife refuge and a residential neighborhood, was opened under emergency authority in April 2006 and closed in August 2006. The landfill is currently waiting on, among other things, a Corps of Engineers permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, after which final closure activity can commence. Second, EPA conducted a disaster debris reduction pilot in St. Bernard Parish in June 2008. EPA has acknowledged that an error in its risk estimate of the potential health effects of exposure to asbestos related to the pilot was a factor in the decision to exclude regulated asbestos-containing material from the revised pilot. Third, a provision of the Water Resources Development Act prohibits federal funds from being used to reimburse any state or local entity in Louisiana for the disposal of C&D debris in a C&D landfill in Louisiana unless that waste meets the federal definition of that debris. While LDEQ officials acknowledged that the provision has therefore not impacted debris disposal operations, EPA and LDEQ officials emphasized that C&D disposal practices in Louisiana have complied with the provisions of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.

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