Spill Waste Buried in Local Landfills But Not in Mississippi

This story was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Aug. 16, 2010 edition.

BP stopped sending waste to a Mississippi landfill last month, under pressure from residents there, while tons of solid, spill remnants continue heading to three Louisiana landfills. So far this summer, Louisianans, who have lived with oil byproducts for decades, haven't reacted publicly to where the disaster's waste -- like used boom, cleanup workers' clothing, and beach and marsh debris -- is buried.

The three Louisiana sites receiving solid waste from the spill are Colonial Landfill in Sorrento in Ascension Parish, River Birch in Avondale and Tidewater in Venice, according to the La. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Disposal has occurred so quietly in Louisiana that Plaquemines Parish Councilwoman Marla Cooper, representing District 9 including Venice, said "neither I nor our Parish Health Department knew about the use of Tidewater for spill waste. It seems that BP does what it wants in our communities and does not bother to notify officials." She added "I was told that oil-spill waste was being trucked to the landfill in Avondale."

New Orleans residents, meanwhile, may be unaware that spill waste is being stashed less than ten miles away in Avondale.

But state waste experts say sites taking what the spill coughed are engineered to cope with it. Sam Phillips,waste permits administrator at the La. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said "the three sites are Type I landfills designed to handle industrial waste, and were chosen based on their waste-treatment records and safety and compliance histories. Any recent code violations have been minor." DEQ and the Dept. of Natural Resources have stepped up inspections since the spill and are making unannounced visits to the three landfills once a week, instead of once a month.

Phillips said "as of this date, we have not received any major public complaints with regard to Colonial, Tidewater and River Birch relating to their acceptance of spill waste."

Among their safety features, Phillips said, "the three landfills have leachate collection systems, with French drains or pipes with small holes in them. Most things, like a banana, that you throw in the garbage create liquid. Leachate collection systems are designed so that no liquid escapes."

Meanwhile, Heritage Environmental Services, BP's spill-waste contractor in Louisiana, is working with landfill owners. Of the state's three fills, Colonial in Sorrento, 25 miles from Baton Rouge, has received the most solid, spill waste to date. "We started accepting Gulf oil waste in the first week of May at our Colonial landfill," said Peg Mulloy, spokeswoman for Republic Services, Inc. in Phoenix. "Colonial is receiving booms that have already been cleaned by Heritage Environmental. We are also accepting from Heritage tar balls, clothes worn by cleanup workers, soil and debris from beaches and marshes, and vegetation--including seaweed."

She said, other than the tarballs, most of those materials have been "processed" by Heritage, which has then placed them in containers delivered to Colonial.

Mulloy said "Colonial is Type I, II and III landfill, permitted by the state's DEQ to accept municipal solid waste, industrial waste and construction and debris material. We don't accept hazardous waste of any kind." The landfill's layered liners include a foot of compacted clay, two synthetic liners, a geo-synthetic clay liner and a foot of sand. She said "a leachate collection system collects all liquids that filter through waste and collect on the bottom liner system of our landfill. The leachate is pumped to a tank-storage system, where it's held for transportation to a publicly-owned, waste water treatment facility."

Colonial's gas-collection system extracts methane gas from decomposing waste within the confines of the landfill, and "gas is burned at our flare," Mulloy said. As required by law, Colonial covers its waste daily with a foot of earthen material or any other material permitted by the state. "We typically cover waste with soil," she said. "Nothing leaves the landfill that isn't supposed to." She confirmed that Colonial is regularly inspected by the DEQ.

On Mississippi's southwest coast, worried residents got spill waste banned from their landfill. "The Pecan Grove landfill stopped receiving spill waste on July 26," said Ken Haldin, Atlanta-based spokesman for Waste Management, Inc., which owns and operates that landfill. His company is the BP waste contractor for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida."The Harrison County Board of Supervisors met with BP and others involved on July 29 to seek alternative sites for spill waste," Haldin said."Solid spill waste is being held at a Waste Management staging area in Pecan Grove in the meantime."

Pecan Grove, situated near residential areas, was the only site in Mississippi to receive solid waste from the spill. "And it did not accept Louisiana's oil-related waste," Haldin said.

Houston-based Waste Management is the top U.S. firm in that industry, followed by Republic Services. Haldin described Waste Management's post-spill operations, which, he said, are all conducted outside of Louisiana. "Following shoreline cleanups, spill waste is transported to staging areas, with final disposal at two landfills in Alabama and one in Florida," Haldin said. "All the waste we're handling is non-hazardous, and the landfill sites we're delivering to are lined for groundwater protection." Tarballs have been among the waste collected in Mississippi and other Gulf states, and "are disposed of properly in landfills," he said. BP is considering options for tarball disposal, like using them to make asphalt, he noted.

In Louisiana, Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said "we rely on DEQ to make the environmental judgment on what waste can be allowed in our landfills. DEQ is continuously monitoring the Colonial Landfill site, and I am confident that if any problems arise, DEQ would contact me immediately." While he plans to continue monitoring the cleanup and disposal process, he said "it seems it will be becoming a much smaller issue."

Colonial had accepted 10,200 tons of spill waste by Aug.1, while Tidewater received 3,300 tons and River Birch 1,660 tons, according to BP's tracking data. In addition, River Birch had received 15,200 tons of solid-waste stream and 14,600 barrels of liquid waste.

Don't even think about digging a big hole in the ground and throwing waste in it anywhere in the U.S., unless you want trouble, experts say. Bhaskar Kura, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of New Orleans, said "waste deposited in landfills requires careful planning, managing and monitoring, and protocols exist as to how these steps are carried out. These protocols are intended to minimize impacts on the environment and public health and safety." He said rain water that enters landfills and washes contaminants down to collection systems must be treated before disposal.

Kura said "a well-designed landfill has a double liner, so if the top one fails, the second one serves as a backup while the first liner is being repaired. Detection systems warn the landfill owner where a leak is so that he can make immediate repairs to prevent the leak from reaching ground water."

Since BP's oil well is capped and officials see little sheen on the water, containment boom is being removed from the coast. Phillips said "some of the weathered boom has gone into landfill, but some of it is being recycled at staging areas along the coast. Parish authorities are attempting to keep boom on hand in case it's needed, especially in the event of a hurricane or storm surge." Hard boom is being cleaned of oil by wiping it down at staging areas, and sorbent boom is being squeezed to remove oil. Some of Louisiana's hard boom is being cleaned at a facility in Texas.

Waste that was tossed around in the ocean should pose little health threat, said Ed Overton, Louisiana State University emeritus professor of coastal sciences. "Much of the waste from the spill is a gunky mess, but it's so weathered that it isn't much of a danger," he said. As for landfill monitoring, he has "reasonable confidence in DEQ, where most of the key people are long timers," though the agency's leadership changes.

Stock watchers wonder whether the spill cleanup will help companies that handle waste. NYSE-traded shares in Waste Management have declined since the spill began while stock in Republic Services reached a two-year high recently. end