Immigrant Neighborhood Fights Katrina Dump

Just as local officials urged them to do, many Vietnamese-Americans returned to their storm-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans, rebuilt their homes and felt they were back to stay. Now they feel betrayed because their neighborhood has been chosen to be the dump for all household debris left in Hurricane Katrina's wake.

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A political struggle in New Orleans, as residents of a Vietnamese community there fight to persuade city leaders to keep a controversial landfill from opening. The mayor, Ray Nagin, issued a temporary moratorium earlier this week to stop that project, but the order is just about to expire.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has the report.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

The huge mounds of debris in New Orleans go to three landfills sites. The most controversial is located in the eastern part of the city, along the Chef Menteur Highway, not far from a large wildlife refuge and Village de L'Est, a neighborhood which is home to most of the city's Vietnamese residents.

Unidentified Man: We do not want this dump to be in New Orleans East. No dumping on me.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking foreign language)

CORLEY: Waving signs and chanting, about 200 protestors took their fight against the landfill to City Hall this week.

(Soundbite of protestors)

CORLEY: Demonstrator Tuet Tran(ph) brought her two children and their friends, all dressed in their Catholic school uniforms to the rally. Tran said she and others had done exactly what Mayor Ray Nagin had asked, and come back to New Orleans.

Ms. TUET TRAN (Resident): We, you know, have started the rebuilding process way before that they would declare it okay. The landfill is right in our backyard. That's not right. You invite us to come back. Give us at least a decent place to stay, and get, you know, you put a dump right there. We care about the community and we want a clean place to live in.

CORLEY: The landfill is huge, an expanded 100 acres designed to take in a portion of the city's overwhelming collection of smashed homes and hurricane debris. The state and the Army Corps of Engineers called for the change, and Mayor Ray Nagin signed an emergency order. During the rally he met with the group's leaders inside City Hall, and then came out to address the crowd.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We have agreed to temporarily suspend all the dumping in that landfill.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORLEY: The mayor says the landfill would close for 72 business hours. Now, a joint team of experts is testing the area to determine whether the waste already dumped might be harmful. The Army Corps of Engineers official, who has been in charge of cleanup, Maurice Falk, says crews separate out any hazardous material before the debris gets to the site. He calls the landfill a necessity.

Mr. MAURICE FALK (Army Corps of Engineers): What we don't have is time to wait. We cannot accept enough trucks in a day to handle the anticipated daily production, when we get into full-blown demolition.

CORLEY: So you need this site.

Mr. FALK: We need a site on the east bank of the Mississippi River. And this is the only option that has become available.

Father VIEN NGUYEN (Pastor, Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church): Look to your right now. Those are the gardens.

CORLEY: During a driving tour of Eastern New Orleans, Father Vien Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, points to the vegetables residents grow along the area lagoon, about a mile from the dumpsite.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

CORLEY: As Father Nguyen gets out of the car, he leads the way to the landfill, which is surrounded by a low chain-linked fence. Four alligators swim by in the canal which separates the dumpsite from the edge of the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country. Nguyen says more than six and half million cubic feet of debris could be dumped here.

Father NGUYEN: It would be probably the tallest structure in New Orleans East. I mean, that's what we have to look forward to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Nguyen and environmental activists say there's plenty of landfill space outside of the city. They want the Army Corps of Engineers to allow haulers to move debris out at night, which could increase cost. But Nguyen says it would keep his community and others in New Orleans East safe.

Father NGUYEN: Imagine what we feel like. I mean, we gone through Katrina. That's nothing, an act of God. The act of God we can accept. It's human irrational acts that we cannot accept.

CORLEY: In the meantime, Father Nguyen is waiting on the landfill test results. He says he's sure Mayor Nagin, who faces an election in just a few days, will keep a promise to shut the site down if it's proven to be harmful.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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