Zurik: City says priority is getting trash picked up, not mixing trash with debris

Contractors caught on camera mixing storm debris with common household trash which could cost the city more than expected
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 10:19 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The City of New Orleans provided few answers Tuesday in response to a FOX 8 Lee Zurik Investigation that found the city’s contractor in charge of specifically collecting trash not associated with Hurricane Ida, was collecting nearly everything found on the street, including storm debris.

FOX 8′s cameras found the contractor, Ceres Environmental, picking up what appeared to be storm-related debris in Lakeview. But the contractor plans to bill the city as if the debris was regular trash, costing taxpayers about four times more money. Three sources say what we saw was categorized as construction and demolition debris being picked up in different parts of the city.

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

When FOX 8 reached out for comment on our story on Monday, the city provided a statement and said they would provide further at their weekly press conference on Tuesday. At that press conference, the city’s communications director, Beau Tidwell, said he had seen the FOX 8 Investigation and said it was “working really hard to find bad news in a good news situation.”

“The good news is the trash is getting picked up. Right? That’s what everybody in the city has been focused on,” Tidwell said. “Since the wind stopped that’s what everybody in this administration has been lasered in on is getting the trash picked up.”

The city signed the contract with Ceres to pick up all of the trash piling up in the city as a result of struggles that pre-dated Hurricane Ida with the city’s two primary trash collectors, Metro Disposal Services and Richards Disposal Inc.

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“The contractors [on the emergency contract] are anticipated to clear up everything that’s not associated with Hurricane Ida,” Tidwell said. “And that means in some areas, as we know, the contracts that are in place have been failing for weeks. And so there was debris that was in the right away mattress, again, a lot of stuff that you’re flagging last night that has not been picked up for months and months, that is not hurricane-related, and that that as a result, it falls squarely under MSW right now, it’s for the municipal solid waste project.”

But FOX 8 cameras found toilets, mattresses, drywall, wood and fencing, all being dumped as part of the city’s emergency contract, which could have significant economic impacts on the city. The city is hoping for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the expenses with the contract, but it’s unclear if the city would be reimbursed for any expenses not related to the hurricane.

Trucks with city contractor Ceres Environmental deliver trash and debris to a city transfer...
Trucks with city contractor Ceres Environmental deliver trash and debris to a city transfer station in New Orleans East.(WVUE-TV)

“We don’t feel that there’s a waste of taxpayer dollars going on right now,” Tidwell said. “When we look at the trash getting off the streets... that’s the first priority.”

As to why FEMA would reimburse the city for trash problems that pre-dated the hurricane, Tidwell said he could not “speak to the mechanics of the reimbursement.”

The mechanics of the reimbursement could be critical to New Orleans taxpayers. The city should be reimbursed for expenses related to Hurricane Ida, but if the contractor is putting storm-related debris into trucks designated for pre-storm trash, the city might not get reimbursed.

Another factor to the cost, is the categorization of debris and trash. So-called construction and demolition debris is typically charged by the cubic yard, while regular trash is charged by the ton. If the contractor bills construction and demolition debris as regular trash, the contractors are earning more money, costing the city, or federal government, more in taxpayer dollars.

“Right now, there’s not a sense that the taxpayer dollars are being wasted. What’s happening is the trash is getting picked up. That’s what the residents want. That’s what their taxpayer dollars are going towards. And that’s our priority.”

Beau Tidwell, City of New Orleans Communications Director

The city said it plans to pay up to $20 Million for the emergency trash collection contract, which is expected to be thirty to sixty days of work. That is the same amount of money the city pays its two garbage collectors to pick up trash for the entire year.

The city spokesperson did not address the comparison between the two contracts.

“What we’re doing today is getting the trash off the streets. That’s the priority,” Tidwell said. “And I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere splitting hairs over what the cost.”

FOX 8 also inquired about how the city is keeping track of the work of the contractor, Ceres, which holds both a contract for storm debris and the emergency contract for trash. If the city is not making sure all storm-related debris is being picked up under the proper contract, it could potentially cost taxpayers millions more dollars.

However, that is a topic FOX 8 was unable to ask any questions about with the city’s spokesperson saying he was not taking any further questions, saying, “it’s not a productive conversation.”

The city said the transfer facility in New Orleans East, opened for temporary use after Hurricane Ida, received nearly 2,000 tons of waste over the weekend. They did not specify how much of that was debris and how much of that was trash.

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