NEW ORLEANS -- Everyone was overwhelmed by garbage and debris after Hurricane Isaac. Metro Disposal Services Inc., the company that made $11 million last year to haul New Orleans’ municipal waste, was no different.
But Eyewitness News’ exclusive review of state records and photographs taken by a fired Metro employee show Metro apparently skirted environmental regulations when they set up a temporary trash transfer station in the yard behind their Old Gentilly Road headquarters.
And, possibly more troubling, the state records suggest that Metro tried to hide the existence of its temporary dump from Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality investigators.
Former Metro employee Jermaine Brown provided Eyewitness News with a photo he took from inside Metro’s yard in September, showing the garbage piled high where a patch of dirt and stacks of dumpsters now sit.
When we confronted Metro with the photo, it acknowledged that it temporarily dumped the trash so it could transfer it to bigger trucks and get it to the River Birch landfill in Waggaman.
But before the photo surfaced, when the Department of Environmental Quality visited the Metro yard on Nov. 15 in response to a complaint by Brown, Metro’s shop manager told investigators that “they have not ever staged or transferred wastes at the location.”
Metro did not answer our questions about that discrepancy.
DEQ said it is continuing its investigation and can’t comment further.
Meanwhile, the neighbors who live right behind where the trash was stacked want answers. They told Eyewitness News that the stench and insects besieged them in their homes for two weeks in September.
"Oh, hideous, man, the smell was like unbearable,” said Terrence Timmons, who works at a body shop directly behind the Metro yard and lives just around the corner. “You couldn't even really take it, you know? You had to like, sometimes mask up sometimes just to walk around and come out."
It’s understandable that it wasn’t business as usual after Hurricane Isaac. In the weeks after the destructive storm passed, as power and refrigeration returned slowly to residences across the city, Metro needed to haul away tens of thousands of tons of garbage from more than 55,000 locations. It’s a two-hour round-trip to River Birch, which has built up a controversial near-monopoly. Plus, with most of the New Orleans area relying on the single landfill, there were huge wait times at the dump once the trucks got there.
So, Metro set up a temporary, non-producing transfer station so their smaller garbage truck fleet could stay on pickup rounds on narrow city streets while larger trucks could run the refuse to Waggaman.
"This was done at a cost to Metro of more than $40,000, none of which was passed along to the city or taxpayers,” Metro spokesman Vincent Sylvain said. “This temporary system was briefly in place during the city's declared ‘State of Emergency’ and in no way ... violated state laws or environmental regulations for non-processed or compressed waste."
But our review of state regulations tells a different story. The regulations clearly say that a business has to notify the state Department of Environmental Quality before setting up such a transfer station. And DEQ records indicate that Metro never did that.
The regulations also say the waste must be placed on a concrete or asphalt slab to prevent seepage and runoff. Witnesses say the garbage was piled right on the ground. A DEQ field interview in November also found oil contamination on the ground and discharge of storm-water runoff without the proper permit.
"The report you cite is designated by DEQ as 'preliminary' only and Metro has drafted a response to certain elements contained in it with which they disagree or which they wish to clarify," Sylvain said.
The regulations also say that owners of garbage transfer stations must control the odor and clean the area daily. Neighbor Darlene Spencer, who lives right behind where the garbage was stacked, said the smell was unbearable for two full weeks.
"Oh it, it smelled too bad,” she said. “You can't get used to that kind of smell."
And then there’s the question of why Metro didn’t come clean about the garbage to the DEQ. First, the company encircled the pile of garbage with trucks and dumpsters, witnesses said.
“The dumpsters was to block the view of these people here,” Brown said as he stood in a neighbor’s yard. “And the dump trucks was to block the view from Old Gentilly Road. So therefore, the only people who really knew about it was the people who was in there.”
Then they replaced the garbage with a pile of dozens of dumpsters, Timmons said.
“They brought the containers back like they was covering up something,” he said.
And after Brown, a 10-year Metro employee, took a photo of the garbage in the yard, they fired him.
"We didn't know it was illegal until I got fired,” Brown said. “When I took a picture of the owner, in that picture, he came to me and said, 'Erase that picture.' I said, 'Cool.' But I didn't. And I go on my vacation and on my vacation, the day I was supposed to return, I get told that I was terminated."
In Sylvain’s statement, Metro claims the company didn't even know about the photo until after Brown was fired for what it called "performance issues." The company also denied ever telling Brown to destroy the picture.