Filed Under:  Business, Health & Wellness, Local, News

Public lining up to oppose putting an incinerator in the 9th Ward

24th September 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

Battle lines continue to be drawn in the public fight over a proposed trash incinerator in the Ninth Ward—engulfing business leaders, community activists and elected officials—as conflicting reports emerge about whether developers for the project have backed away from the proposal or are shelving the plan until constructing the facility becomes more politically tenable.

Sun Energy Group, the New Orleans-based firm pushing the proposal, has tried for several years to get the green light to erect a “gasification” plant in the Regional Business Park in New Orleans East that would dispose of tons of local and out-of-state garbage materials by turning the refuse into gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

But the gas-induced process is controversial and has raised the ire of local politicians and community leaders. Local environmental activist Cathy Charbonnet compiled a list of risk factors associated with gasification technology, including the potential for toxic gas seepage into the atmosphere, increased energy usage and exposure to cancer-causing agents.

“This is not just a problem for the Ninth Ward,” Charbonnet said. “This is a problem for the whole city. I want to stress that. This is a problem for the whole city. Gases from these plants are able to travel up to 250 miles from their source.” Charbonnet believes the effort to place the plant “among poor Black people” is “not surprising” and is an example of environmental racism.

The issue was also raised at a September 13 candidate forum for the District E City Council race and has made its way once again to City Hall.

State Rep. Austin Badon, who is running for the District E post, called gasification “an untested technology” and stressed his “long history” of opposing the Sun Energy plant.

But James Gray, an attorney also running in District E, declined to condemn the proposed plant, stating, “I’m a lawyer, not a scientist. I wouldn’t be qualified to address the safety of the proposal.” Gray also noted that Sun Energy founder D’Juan Hernandez indicated that the trash incinerator planned for the area “wasn’t going to happen” following continued opposition to the effort from activists and politicians.

A spokesperson for Sun Energy said the plan is merely “on hold” but declined to provide further details about the proposal or shed light on the discussion between Gray and Hernandez. Hernandez did not respond at press time to repeated attempts to reach him directly for comment about the ongoing controversy and resistance to his firm’s proposal.

Marie Hurt, state director for the group A Community Voice, said Sun Energy’s statement that the project is on hold has been the company’s “standard line” while it continues to push for approval from the city’s planning commission to build the facility. “We know that they have been lobbying local elected officials behind the scenes to gain support for this plan,” Hurt said. She and other opponents of the plant believe local government support will help smooth the way for federal environmental regulators to sign off on the idea and not investigate the proposal in a thorough fashion.

Last month, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University sent a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu outlining its opposition to the plant, calling the project “dangerous” and “not the answer to our community’s landfill problem or energy needs.” Plants like the one proposed by Sun Energy, the group said, “have a history of operational problems including explosions, cracks in the reactor siding due to high temperatures and corrosion, and leaking waste water basins.”

Gasification plants in other parts of the world are also known to “emit toxic chemicals, toxic metals and other pollutants into [the] air,” a factor known to Sun Energy, but is missing from the company’s paperwork submitted to gain approval for the project, according to the environmentalists at Dillard. The treatment of “large amounts of garbage will undermine recycling, zero waste and renewable energy programs that are vital to the health, environment and economic well-being of New Orleans. Citizens are concerned that the proposed Sun Entergy site can negatively impact the economic recovery of New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, and Gentilly.” The letter was signed by 14 other groups and individuals.

The Landrieu administration, however, did not respond to requests for comment about the letter or the mayor’s stance on the proposed plant.

Sun Energy has stated that the gasification project would produce jobs in a hard-hit area of the city and has countered charges that the proposed technology is dangerous. But the group’s efforts to win over public sentiment have stalled and have been resisted by area activists and elected officials since the inception of the company’s proposal to locate the plant in New Orleans East.

In 2009, then-U.S. Rep. Joseph Cao publicly opposed the proposed plant and questioned the safety of the technology used to turn what proponents call “waste-to-energy.” Cao blasted Sun Energy’s business plan as “suspect” and charged the firm with having a simple desire to make money at the expense of poor and disadvantaged New Orleanians.

This article originally published in the September 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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