NEW ORLEANS — Jefferson Parish and state officials are taking significant steps to pinpoint the sources of potentially toxic odors that have terrorized River Ridge, Harahan and Waggaman for the last two years.
A new state-funded and -operated air quality monitoring station is now in place at Waggaman Playground, in the neighborhood sandwiched between a cluster of landfills and the Mississippi River. And Jefferson Parish government officials expect a report next week from consultant Pivotal Engineering for placing other air monitors on parish land on the other side of the river, likely between Harahan and River Ridge.
After a drawn-out fight to fix massive gas emissions at the Jefferson Parish Landfill, and as the operators of the private River Birch Landfill work on a $5 million project to improve gas collection at the parish landfill, neighbors from both sides of the river got tours of the new DEQ monitoring station this week.
“I’m excited about this, especially when I found out we could see the data every hour (and) I can go back and look at it,” said Jenny Zimmer, a River Ridge resident.
She said she woke up from the stench in her house at 2 a.m. last Saturday morning.
“But then, I was able to go back and look at the data and say, ‘Oh, wait, hold on,’” Zimmer said. “At this time is when I started smelling it and you could see the methane gas levels were higher. And all of a sudden the hydrogen sulfide levels start going up.”
Last year, a WWL-TV investigation uncovered the source of those high hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, emissions at Jefferson Parish Landfill: large amounts of hydrated lime brought in from a Chalmette carbon plant and used to solidify liquid industrial waste. The longtime landfill manager told the station that he didn’t realize that sulfates in the lime would interact with other chemicals in the landfill and cause H2S emissions to spike.
That, combined with a longstanding problem of liquid leaching out of the landfill garbage and flooding the gas collection system, created the uncontrolled stench emanating from the parish landfill since 2017.
But parish leaders are concerned about other sources of smells that may be affecting residents, including mid-stream loading operations on the river and nearby chemical plants. DEQ environmental scientist Peter Cazeaux said the new Waggaman monitoring facility will measure spikes in particulates and chemicals, along with wind direction and speed to pinpoint sources.
“Hopefully, we can say what a definitive source is. If it is the landfill, we can say the levels aren’t high or if they are high, we can go ahead and address that,” Cazeaux said.
In two weeks of collecting data, the air monitoring station has measured elevated levels of H2S and methane, but nothing more than 17 parts per billion and nothing close to the measurements in the parts per million range that were detected on the landfill last summer.
New Parish Councilman Deano Bonano is concerned that nothing has been done to pinpoint other sources of the powerful stink, which is why he is pushing for additional parish resources for more monitoring sites on the East Bank.
“As a fireman who's trained in hazardous materials response, I know when I go out and smell a chemical odor, that's not the landfill, and what I smell coming from the north, is not the landfill. So, there are other potential sources,” he said.
He’s urging residents to stay patient as they monitor the new data over the course of several months.
“It's not something you do in one day. You're talking about building a dataset over months.
Excuse Zimmer if she's still skeptical about whether the government will follow through.
“Well, they have the data but they’ve got to do something with the data,” she said. “They’ve got to correlate the data that they’re getting from (Waggaman) with the complaints that are coming into their SPOC (DEQ’s Single Point of Contact air quality complaint hotline). And if they can’t correlate that, then this is a waste of money.”