Zurik: Contractors mixing debris and trash could cost city more money

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - City contractors that are supposed to keep trash and storm debris separate are mixing them together, which could mean a higher bill for whoever picks up the bill -- either the City of New Orleans or the federal government.

The trash problems for the City of New Orleans started before Hurricane Ida and were exacerbated by the storm. On Sept. 23, Mayor Latoya Cantrell and city officials announced four contractors were being hired to speed up trash collection. One of those companies hired was Ceres Environmental, a company that already had a contract for storm debris. In announcing the contracts, city officials said the debris and trash would be picked up separately.

“I want to be very clear in the distinction of the work that we’re about to undertake, as it pertains to storm debris removal, which is underway. These are two completely separate workstreams, activities that are going to happen separately. The resources won’t overlap based on FEMA regulations.”

FOX 8 found trucks working for Ceres, picking up what three sources call “construction and demolition” or “C&D Debris,” but loading the debris on trucks dedicated to “Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)” or typical trash, potentially earning the company four times more money per truck.

For construction and demolition debris, Ceres is paid by the cubic yard, but the municipal solid waste contract allows Ceres to earn money based on the ton. One truck dropping off at the city’s temporary transfer station in New Orleans East said their weight came in at six tons. That truck would have had a $400 load carrying construction and demolition debris, but our sources say the rate for municipal solid waste is $196/ton making that load of six tons worth nearly $1,200.

Our cameras found trucks dumping drywall, wood, fencing -- all what our sources said would be considered construction and demolition debris, being billed to the city as trash.

A document the contractor, Ceres, distributed to trash subcontractors even said crews will collect all municipal solid waste not currently in residential bags. But our cameras saw many trucks picking up much more than everyday trash.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency defines construction and demolition debris as “damaged components of buildings and structures.” Among the items listed are lumber, wood, carpeting, furnishings and fixtures.

A worker with one of the trash crews said they were “only hauling trash.” But we observed trucks filled with mattresses, a couch, tree limbs -- very little solid waste, but the contractor planned to charge it at the city’s emergency trash collection rate, which is much higher than the rate for construction and demolition debris.

Another one of the city’s contracts was for a monitoring firm to make sure the contractors are following the contract. The monitor at the site was unsure what should or shouldn’t be included in the trucks.

FEMA typically reimburses for storm debris removal, but not for municipal solid waste, or everyday trash. If storm debris is being billed as solid waste, it could cost taxpayers since the city doesn’t know if it will be reimbursed by the federal government and at what rate.

If FEMA does reimburse the city, that means all taxpayers, not just those in New Orleans, will be on the hook for paying about four times the amount to dump storm debris.

Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said it all amounts to government waste and the city should put a stop to it immediately.

“There’s no reason the city would let this happen. It’s not in the city’s best interest. So why are they letting it happen? My only answer is they don’t know,” Friedman said.

The contractor, Ceres Environmental, did not respond to our requests for comment.

The City of New Orleans said no one was available for an interview on this story, but they did release the following statement:

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