A Toxic Existence

By Sophie Brams

The Agriculture Street landfill was closed in the late 1950s. In 1981, a neighborhood was built on top of it. In 1994, it was declared a superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 1990s the fight for relocation began. And yet, the neighborhood, Gordon Plaza, still stands despite high levels of toxic chemicals.

Gordon Plaza is a neighborhood in the Desire area of New Orleans, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was designed to be an affordable housing option for African Americans, specifically the elderly and low-income families. The development is now handled by the Housing Authority of New Orleans. What was once touted as a place to fulfill the “American Dream” has quickly become a nightmare.

The history of the Desire neighborhood of the Upper Ninth Ward begins with the construction of the Industrial Canal, said Nathan Lott, Policy and Research Director for the New Orleans Preservation Resource Center.

“At the time there were aspirations that the Industrial Canal would become the inner harbor so there could be a lot of maritime industry,” he said. “The housing developments in that area were conceived, in part, as workforce housing for this expanded industrial port area.”

This could have been a bustling part of town, with ships using it as the thoroughfare to the Mississippi River, and people trying to pull themselves up out of cyclical poverty. But sadly, that idea never came to fruition and the people were left to deal with poor neighborhoods that were often overlooked by the city’s government. Lott said he thinks this area may just have been doomed from the start.

“It was in some ways ill-fated from the beginning and part of larger urban planning attempts that failed,” he said.

In 1909, the Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL) was opened on 95 acres of undeveloped swampland to accommodate the trash produced by the City of New Orleans. Following an outcry of public health concerns, Louisiana passed a law that prohibited the operation of open-air landfills situated within highly populated areas. The New Orleans city government ignored this legislation and continued operation at the landfill. The 1950s were riddled with neighbors’ pleas to close the ASL, which was ultimately suspended operation in the latter part of the decade. Then, Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, leaving a path of destruction and debris in its wake. To accommodate all the trash, the landfill was reopened for about a year before being officially shut down for good. The former ASL was declared a Superfund site in 1994, meaning that it was considered to be heavily contaminated and therefore qualified for federally funded remediation.

Now, Residents of Gordon Plaza Inc, a non-profit group made up of community members, are pleading with the City of New Orleans for funded relocation.

Given that the area that contains Gordon Plaza boasts the second-highest cancer rate in the state of Louisiana, it may then be possible that the location of the neighborhood on top of this former landfill has been detrimental to the people living there.

The desire for relocation has been an ongoing battle headlined by residents who are concerned that their physical location on top of the landfill has created irreversible health consequences for themselves and their neighbors. Most of these residents have lived in the neighborhood for decades and have seen the effects first-hand.

Resident Shannon Rainey shared with Very Local New Orleans, that in the days leading up to the site being declared a health risk, “Rashes were all over [people’s] bodies. Children were being born deformed. Women were having miscarriages. People were popping up with cancer.”

Since the relocation effort began almost three decades ago, the residents of Gordon Plaza have won two class-action lawsuits against the city of New Orleans. The first suit was filed in 1994 against the city, the New Orleans school board, and two construction companies for knowingly building development and an elementary school on a contaminated site. At the time, residents claimed they had not been told the area was potentially dangerous when buying their homes and sending their children to school. The second suit, filed in 2006 and finally reconciled in 2015, was levied against various insurance companies. Despite multiple legal victories and millions of dollars in reparations, the residents are still in talks with the Mayor’s Office and feel as if their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Nevertheless, the health risk is real. According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was completed in the 1980s, the soil on the site was rich with toxins including high levels of lead and arsenic. All in, the EPA reported over 150 contaminants, about one-third of which are known carcinogens. In light of this, the EPA pursued a clean-up plan where they removed the top level of contaminated soil and replaced it with fresh soil in 2001. But, residents believed that only postponed the problem. Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which thwarted the remediation plans, washing away the fresh layer of soil that had been placed on top of the contaminated soil.

“The toxins are still there!” said resident Marilyn Amar in an interview with the Guardian. “They did a cover-up, not a clean-up.”

Isobel Pribil, an environmental science professor at Tulane, said the three chemicals that people should be worried about when living near or on a landfill are lead, arsenic, and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons- or PAHs. PAHs can be formed through the burning of garbage and are a confirmed human carcinogen. Overexposure to lead and arsenic can mean heart disease, neurotoxicity, diabetes, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.

But, there exists some debate about whether the levels of those toxins currently in the soil are actually harmful. After sampling data was collected in the early 2000s by the EPA, the levels of chemicals in the soil were not deemed significantly hazardous to the population.

“Kids are your vulnerable population because they are ingesting whatever and the levels that they would have been exposed to were not significant enough to cause immediate harm,” Pribil said.

The future of children living in Gordon Plaza is especially relevant considering Robert R. Morton Elementary School, opened in 1987, once served as the zoned elementary school for residents of Gordon Plaza and other Desire neighborhoods. Following the Superfund site declaration, the school was closed and has since been boarded up and abandoned.

However, Pribil added that tracing the chronic health effects is a little bit more difficult as samples of blood and urine would need to be taken from the long-time residents of the subdivision.

The relocation efforts resurfaced in 2018 after a local developer issued plans to convert an abandoned building on the property into an apartment complex and a third lawsuit was filed. In the summer of 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell met with the residents of Gordon Plaza, but no action has been taken. LaTonya Norton, the mayor’s press secretary said in a statement: “The mayor continues to explore opportunities for a possible resolution.” Mayor Cantrell even posted a message to social media reassuring the residents that she was taking their concerns seriously.

“You matter and I’m listening and actively working on a solution,” Cantrell said in the video message.

But one resident, Jesse Perkins, told the Guardian he is not willing to wait around forever.

“I don’t want to die fighting this. I’m gonna get myself out of here if need be,” he said.

Despite the relative lack of action being taken by the local government, Pribil said that because soil sampling has not been completed in over a decade, that would be a good place to start.

The last official sampling of the soil was conducted in 2006 by the EPA and at that time the agency concluded that the majority of contaminants that were founded did not pose a public health risk. Superfund sites are supposed to be monitored long-term and the effects of remediation efforts are to be tested every five years. Gordon Plaza has now passed that threshold twice, without any further testing being done.

While ultimately more testing is essential before moving forward, Pribil believes that  “everyone should have the chance to have a clean environment in which to live, grow, and prosper.”

The residents echo that message and Amar told Nola.com that it is time for the New Orleans city government to step up and do the right thing.

“The residents deserve the opportunity to live in a viable community, which is what the city promised when it sold these homes.”

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