For nine months, the Jefferson Parish-owned landfill has occupied a central place in the rogue’s gallery of culprits suspected of being behind the varied miseries that have beset nearby residents along the Mississippi River.
In and around Harahan, River Ridge and Waggaman, sickening odors have invaded people's houses, a mysterious particulate floats down from the sky like snowflakes, and a deafening banging noise from the river causes families to bolt upright in their beds at night.
In each case, there are suspicions — often strong ones — but no one to definitively pin the blame on, much less hold accountable. Chemical plants hum behind guarded gates; barges load and unload their cargo behind levees after dark, essentially invisible to the public.
There also are five landfills clustered together near Waggaman and Avondale — three operating and two shut down — and each is a target of some degree of public skepticism.
Through it all, though, the parish’s disclosure of the deplorable state of its own Waggaman landfill has put it firmly in the cross-hairs. At a July press conference, administration officials admitted that years of neglect of the landfill's water and gas collection systems meant that as much as 80 percent of the gases generated by rotting garbage could be escaping into the air.
But that could be about to change.
The parish is repairing the last six pumps in the leachate system, which collects the water that drains out of the garbage, and it could have all 78 working within about a week. Mike Lockwood, the parish’s director of environmental affairs, said it will be the first time in more than five years that the entire system is operational.
“I think that’s quite a milestone for the parish,” he said.
As for the gas pumps, a separate but closely related system that was almost 50 percent flooded-in last summer, the landfill now has just about all 240 pumps working, though Lockwood said that number tends to be a bit fluid.
Lockwood said more pumps could be added depending on the judgment of River Birch, which processes and sells the landfill gases to the nearby Cornerstone Chemical plant and will soon be put in charge of the leachate and gas collection systems that feed into River Birch’s plant at the landfill site.
Lockwood said the parish has been getting fewer odor complaints lately, and inspections by state environmental regulators have gone from daily to about twice a week.
He said the systems need time to pull all the gases out of the closed-in waste. He would not provide a specific timeline but said, “I think we’re rapidly approaching normal day-to-day operations at the landfill.”
Meanwhile, residents in the communities that surround the landfill on both sides of the river have been logging fewer complaints to the Facebook page and spreadsheet created a year ago to track the strength and location of the odors.
It was late 2017 when the odors began filling homes with a foul stench that residents said would burn their eyes, noses and throats. In some cases, people reported nosebleeds and other troubling symptoms, and the spreadsheet has about 4,200 recorded entries.
But Gerald Herbert, one of the Harahan residents who administers the Facebook page and the odor-tracking spreadsheet, said that complaints tend to die down in the winter, when the wind shifts and blows toward the south and southeast.
He noted that although the smell became a regular problem in the late summer of 2017, the Facebook page wasn’t created until the end of the following April, largely because the smells had resumed with a vengeance after a winter lull.
He also noted that the controversy over Cornerstone’s bid to expand a cyanide plant most people didn’t even know existed near their homes has been occupying residents' attention the past few months.
While a state permit for the expansion is still under consideration by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the Parish Council voted last week to rescind the permission it gave the company in January 2018, before anyone was paying attention.
“People are fatigued from complaining, and this Cornerstone thing has taken their energy,” Herbert said, though he noted there was an odor complaint from a resident as recently as last week.
Some residents feel the parish-owned landfill is the sole culprit, while others think that a petrochemical component of the odor suggests it is coming from one of the nearby industrial plants, or from vessels loading and unloading along the river. The latter notion has been espoused by some council members, who have been frustrated by their inability to get usable, up-to-date information on what is going on along the river.
Herbert is among the residents who think there could be several sources of what are different odors. But he said completion of the work at the landfill won’t necessarily mean the parish is vindicated if the odors persist.
While he said the parish has clearly been working on the landfill’s problems, any continued odors could simply mean the the fixes weren’t enough or that the facility was poorly engineered from the start.
“I’m hoping they made progress on it, and I have to assume some of that is taking hold, but we are also assuming that when the wind shifts ... that we are going to be smelling it again,” he said.
Herbert said the mobilization against the Cornerstone cyanide plant, which itself was fueled by public exasperation with the landfill and the odors, shows that residents won't back down from holding anyone accountable if they feel they deserve it.
Meanwhile, the parish’s position on the matter remains unchanged.
“The fact is the parish has never, ever said we are the sole source of odors being experienced,” Lockwood said. “We have always been committed to getting our house in order and reaching regulatory compliance at the landfill. The leachate system is in regulatory compliance, and we continue to fine-tune the gas system.”
Editor's note: This story was changed on April 8, 2019 to correct an erroneous statement that the vertical gas wells are turned on and off. They run continuously, drawing gasses under vacuum.