The company handling disposal of Hurricane Sandy debris here has a rather dirty history from the work it did along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, according to the director of the Sierra Club New Jersey chapter.
The company, AshBritt, left new contaminated sites in its wake as it did cleanup along the Gulf Coast after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Jeff Tittel said in a Feb. 22 opinion column he wrote for NJToday.net.
"A report by the US General (Government) Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008 found that the disposal of Katrina wastes by AshBritt in the south resulted in the creation of contaminated sites along the Gulf Coast and two new Superfund sites in New Orleans," Tittel wrote in his column, which explored links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change.
This claim caught our eye since AshBritt received a no-bid contract from New Jersey to handle the bulk of the Hurricane Sandy cleanup. Even more eye-catching? The nearly 40-page GAO report cited by Tittel not only never mentions AshBritt, it looks only at debris disposal in the New Orleans area.
Let’s first review some background about how Florida-based AshBritt came to New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy slammed New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, causing widespread damage here, in New York and Connecticut. Hours after the storm, Gov. Chris Christie awarded AshBritt a no-bid contract that piggybacked off one the company had with Connecticut. The decision has drawn public scrutiny for a variety of reasons, such as higher-than-usual disposal costs to towns for which AshBritt has handled debris disposal.
Now let’s get into Tittel’s claim about that GAO report.
AshBritt general counsel Jared Moskowitz called Tittel’s claim about the company’s role in New Orleans and Louisiana "hocus pocus."
Moskowitz said AshBritt was only in Louisiana for a couple of weeks after Katrina before the Army Corps of Engineers moved them to do debris removal work in Mississippi.
"We weren’t in New Orleans and Louisiana long enough to create a Superfund site," Moskowitz told us. "It is a lie."
The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that AshBritt worked briefly in New Orleans before moving east to Mississippi.
We also checked with the GAO about AshBritt’s alleged role, and the agency confirmed that neither AshBritt nor any other disposal company was referenced in their report. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
"We did not look at contractors at all, in fact," said Alfredo Gomez, a GAO spokesman. "We looked at federal agencies and Louisiana agencies. Contractors are outside the scope of our work."
The report notes disposal violations at several New Orleans-area landfills, but doesn’t reference the "Gulf Coast," as Tittel does, and details how the state dealt with those violations.
Tittel said the purpose of his column was to point out debris disposal problems that occurred after Katrina and to ensure that New Jersey has strong oversight of Hurricane Sandy debris removal and the contractors doing the work.
"The lesson that we saw in the Gulf was when you privatize things and you don’t have clear oversight and enforcement in place, you end up having a lot of mistakes," he said.
Finally, let’s look at the rest of Tittel’s claim.
We reviewed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites in three Gulf Coast states hit hard by Katrina: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. None of 31 sites listed referenced Katrina, including two in New Orleans: the Old Gentilly Landfill and the Agriculture Street Landfill.
"The Agriculture Street site did not receive any debris from Katrina," said EPA Region 6 spokeswoman Jennah Durant. "No new National Priority List (NPL) sites were created in New Orleans as a result of post-Katrina clean-up."
Tittel said in an opinion column, "A report by the US General Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008 found that the disposal of Katrina wastes by AshBritt in the south resulted in the creation of contaminated sites along the Gulf Coast and two new Superfund sites in New Orleans."
There are several major problems with Tittel’s claim. First, neither AshBritt nor any other contractor is named in the report. Second, the GAO confirmed that contractors were not part of their study. Third, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that AshBritt was not the major contractor in New Orleans - the company was moved to Mississippi shortly after Katrina cleanup started. Fourth, the report’s scope is limited to existing landfills in the New Orleans area – not new contamination sites or "the Gulf Coast." Fifth, the EPA has confirmed that post-Katrina debris did not cause new Superfund sites in New Orleans. At least five falsehoods in one claim? That’s beyond ridiculous. Pants on Fire!
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NJToday.net, Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change?, Feb. 22, 2013, accessed March 27, 2013
YouTube, Sierra Club Press Conference, March 7, 2013, accessed March 27, 2013
Phone interview with Jared Moskowitz, general counsel, AshBritt, March 28, 2013
Interviews with Jeff Tittel, director, New Jersey Sierra Club, March 28, April 3 and 5, 2013
Phone and e-mail interviews with Alfredo Gomez, spokesman, U.S. Government Accountability Office, April 3, 2013
E-mail and phone interviews with Jennah Durant and Carmen Assunto, spokeswomen, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 6 (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 Indian tribes), April 3, 4 and 5, 2013
NJ.com, Democratic lawmakers say AshBritt has poor environmental track record, March 7, 2013, accessed April 4, 2013
Phone interview with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division, April 4, 2013
U.S. Government Accountability Office report 08-985R Hurricane Katrina Debris, accessed March 26, 28, April 3, 4 and 5, 2013
NOLA.com, Politically connected firms getting Katrina contracts, Oct. 20, 2005, accessed April 4, 2013
NOLA.com, Refuse hauler refusing to keep on trucking, Oct. 15, 2005, accessed April 4, 2013
NOLA.com, Returnees prepare for the long haul, Sept. 19, 2005, accessed April 4, 2013
NOLA.com, Old Gentilly Landfill is not the environmental disaster that was feared, Nov. 6, 2011, accessed April 4, 2013
NOLA.com, Hurricane Katrina was a bonanza for local landfills, and River Birch fought to get every scrap of debris, Sept. 26, 2012, accessed April 4, 2013
The Federal Response To Hurricane Katrina Lessons Learned, February 2006, accessed April 4, 2013
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Final National Priorities List Sites -- by State, accessed April 5, 2013
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Second Five-Year Review Report for the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund Site, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, accessed April 5, 2013
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