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The Big Uneasy

Lawsuit alleges mishandling of New Orleans landfill.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the city of New Orleans and one of its landfill operators claiming private land was used to illegally dispose of billions of pounds of Hurricane Katrina debris. The Old Gentilly Landfill, located on a 200-acre site on the east side of the city in the Regional Business Park, was originally opened during the 1960s and closed in 1982. It was forced back into operation shortly after the hurricane hit in 2005.

According to the suit, the Old Gentilly Landfill has accepted so much hurricane debris from New Orleans and surrounding areas over the past two years that the property is covered by as much as 50 feet of debris. “The entire area is levied, fenced and access-controlled, and plaintiffs have no means of accessing the site to determine exactly what has happened to their property,” it states. There are at least 150 different owners of the 600 parcels of land within the boundaries of the landfill. Many of the parcels are subdivision lots that measure 25 feet by 125 feet.

The area was originally divided into parcels in the early to mid-1900s, according to the suit. Many people invested in the land because developers had plans for the area that included commercial use and the construction of three subdivisions — Lichentag, Flowerdale and Flowerdale Addition, also known as Foredtlawn. Development plans eventually fell through, but the owners or their ancestors, who continue to pay taxes on the property, held onto their investments. Joel Waltzer, an environmental lawyer who filed the suit, says many of the investors have never actually seen their property. “But as they continued to pay taxes, the city was collecting revenue from the landfill,” he says.

The landfill operator, AMID/Metro Partnership, is a joint venture formed by construction company owner Stephen Stumpf and waste hauler Jimmie Woods. The suit seeks to recover past and future profits derived from unauthorized use of the land. The suit alleges that AMID/Metro and the city received tens of millions of dollars in revenue from dumping hurricane debris at the landfill, the majority of which sits on private land. Waltzer says public entities, such as the Orleans Parish School Board, own roughly 20 percent of the land that comprises the landfill.

In 2002, the city signed a contract with AMID/Metro to open a construction and demolition (C&D) landfill on or near the location of the Old Gentilly Landfill. AMID/Metro's duties were to manage the landfill and obtain the necessary regulatory approval. In exchange, it would receive 97 percent of the landfill's revenue.

On the permit application, which was submitted in 2002 to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), the city claimed to own the land beneath the proposed landfill. It also refers to a resolution passed by the New Orleans Business and Industrial District board that called for the construction of the landfill owned by AMID/Metro.

Then, in December 2004, the LDEQ issued the city a limited permit for a C&D landfill that included “numerous conditions” that needed to be met before the landfill could open. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the conditions had not been met, and the landfill remained closed.

However, on Sept. 29, 2005, the LDEQ issued an emergency order to open the landfill despite its failure to comply with permit requirements. The LEDQ confirmed that the landfill quickly became one of the busiest C&D landfills in the state, taking in as much as 100,000 cubic yards of waste in one day.

Waltzer says the number of property owners coming forward to join the suit is still growing. The suit is currently awaiting response from the defendants before it can go to trial.