What To Do With Trash Left Behind In Gulf Cleanup?

The cleanup effort from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has left behind more than 45,000 tons of garbage. That includes used boom, stained clothing from cleanup workers, tar balls and other trash. And now come questions of where to put that trash. Is it safe for the local landfill? Melissa Block talks to Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club in New Orleans about taking out the trash from the Gulf.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The BP oil spill has generated nearly 47,000 tons of oily solid waste so far - everything from tar balls to used boom to oiled vegetation. That waste has been sent to landfills along the Gulf Coast, and that has led to environmental and health worries among local communities.

Darryl Malek-Wiley is a field organizer with the Sierra Club working on environmental justice issues. He joins us from New Orleans. And, Darryl, why don't you explain first how this oily waste is processed?

Mr. DARRYL MALEK-WILEY (Field Organizer, Sierra Club): Well, the oily waste is picked up by ships or by gentlemen picking up tar balls, put into containers, taken to a sorting location and then shipped to different landfills along the Gulf Coast.

BLOCK: Okay. And would it be considered hazardous waste? Would that determine what kind of landfill it can be sent to?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: That's one of the arguments that we're having with the Environmental Protection Agency. They're not considering it as a hazardous waste, so it can go to any landfill that has a liner in it, any municipal landfill.

BLOCK: And what would determine whether something is considered hazardous waste?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: It's complicated. But what they're saying is their testing is not finding any hazardous characteristics. Also there is a loophole in the federal law dealing with oil exploration and production waste that, by law, makes it non-hazardous.

BLOCK: Because I would assume this is such a busy community under the best of times that a lot of oily waste would be generated all the time, and it would be sent somewhere.

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Right. It's sent to landfills that aren't as strictly regulated as a hazardous waste landfill because of this exception for the waste, and there have been a number of incidents throughout history in Louisiana with real problems at oilfield waste disposal sites.

BLOCK: And what kind of problems are you most worried about?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Air emissions going into communities. Other places, they've injected it under the ground. In some cases, that has come back up in other location. So those are a couple of the environmental issues related to the oilfield waste.

BLOCK: What sorts of things would they be testing for when they test the oily waste?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: They're testing for a series of different chemicals that are usually found in oil, and they're also looking at - some oils have heavy metals just because where they're coming out of the reservoir. So they're looking at a suite also of heavy-metal testing.

BLOCK: I did read this from one scientist that the oil that's being brought in is so degraded from being out in the Gulf for so long that a lot of the most worrisome chemicals would have evaporated. Do you think that's true?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Some of the benzenes and toluenes that are definitely known to cause cancer have been evaporating, but there hasn't been enough air testing to confirm that there haven't been any clouds of benzenes, toluenes impacting coastal communities.

BLOCK: I'm wondering, Mr. Malek-Wiley, the waste has to go somewhere, right, and there's a lot of it.

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Right.

BLOCK: What would you have them do with it that they're not doing right now?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Well, we would like to see it, you know, in a special segment of landfills. If it's going to a municipal landfill, someway that we can segregate it and possibly come back and look at it in future time. The other possibility is sending it to a hazardous waste landfill, which has higher standards as far as protecting the environment from anything getting out into the air, water or land.

BLOCK: Have you heard any specific complaints from people in the communities? Any health concerns that they have right now, things they've started to see?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: I have not - that's one thing that I've been talking with a number of community leaders around the state in Louisiana and in Mississippi and Alabama trying to identify people who live right next to the sites, and we're working to hold a meeting of the directly impacted communities sometime in September.

NORRIS: So nothing so far?

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Nothing so far, correct.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Darryl Malek-Wiley. He's a field organizer with the Sierra Club in New Orleans. Thanks very much.

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: Thank you very much, Melissa.

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