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Katrina's garbage rates a Category 5

Region struggles to reduce, recycle storm's wreckage

By Andrew Martin
Tribune national correspondent
Published January 4, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the best views of New Orleans these days is from just east of town, on top of a mountain of garbage that provides a commanding view of the skyline.

The once-closed Old Gentilly landfill is humming with activity, and in the four months since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, it has grown about 100 feet higher.

So much garbage was left behind by the storm that the federal government estimates that if stacked in 1-yard cubes, it would wrap around the Earth more than once. And the crews that are picking up the trash aren't close to being finished.

While a dozen or more landfills have sprouted in Mississippi and Louisiana, federal crews are trying a variety of methods to shrink the garbage pile as much as possible.

One strategy involves recycling everything from downed trees to appliances, an effort complicated by the fact that much of the garbage has been stewing in saltwater.

Nevertheless, on the top of the Old Gentilly landfill, thousands of refrigerators are stacked together as one crew--dressed in white protective suits, heavy gloves and respirators--pulls out rotting food while another taps into copper wiring in the rear to pull out the refrigerant, which is recycled.

"On a cold day it's not that bad, but on a hot day, it's interesting," said H.C. Morris, president of Environmental Recycling, a Kentucky company that is recycling refrigerators and other appliances, when asked about removing the food. "After about three days, you get used to it. You can eat a sandwich right there, and it doesn't bother you."

Along with washers, dryers and other appliances, the refrigerators are lifted by crane into a hulking machine called a baler that crushes them into 1,700-pound metal rectangles, 6 feet long by 2 1/2 feet wide. Morris makes his money by selling the bales to scrap metal dealers.

"We got a little niche here because no one wants to deal with this," Morris said.

At another landfill near Kiln, Miss., piles of downed trees and branches are lifted by a giant crane and dropped into a loud, whirling machine that chops them up and spits out mulch. Most of the mulch, contaminated with bits of debris and saltwater, is used between layers of garbage in the landfills.

In Plaquemines Parish, which was essentially leveled by the storm, there is too much debris to think much about recycling yet.

To reduce the volume, the Army Corps of Engineers is using a giant shredding machine, appropriately named the "Annihilator." Now in Empire, La., a town near the bottom of Plaquemines Parish that was demolished by Katrina, the Annihilator is being fed a constant diet of construction waste--basically the remains of houses--to reduce the volume by two-thirds.

"It's like a big shredder," said Greg Schulz, a resident engineer for the corps who is overseeing the Annihilator's operation. "For every 3 [cubic] yards you put in, you get 1 back out."

Eventually some of the debris may be burned for fuel or recycled in some way, corps officials said. For instance, magnets could be used to pull the metal out of the shredded debris pile.

The mountains of Katrina debris have included all sorts of hazardous materials, from paint cans and gasoline containers to 55-gallon drums filled with chemicals. Crews picking up the debris have separated hazardous materials from the rest of the garbage, and the Environmental Protection Agency has picked them up.

At one of the EPA collection sites, at the south end of St. Bernard Parish next to the tiny Canary Island Cultural Museum, crews in protective suits separated and categorized the material. Once enough of the hazardous waste is collected at the St. Bernard site, it is loaded onto a truck and taken to a special incinerator in Texas where it is burned.

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ajmartin@tribune.com

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune