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‘It’s a Nightmare’: New Orleans Built Homes on a Toxic Landfill and Encouraged Black Residents to Move There. Now Officials Refuse to Move Them or Pay Damages.

Nearly three decades after learning their neighborhood was built on contaminated soil, government officials have not fully compensated or relocated a group of Black families for the inequity.

New Orleans built the 67 houses atop a former garbage landfill after promoting the area as a chance for low-income homeownership for African-Americans in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Residents of Gordon Plaza have fought for decades for relocation and compensation for homes being built on toxic land. (Photo: Nnoirnnola/Twitter)

When families moved in, they planted fruit trees and played in their backyards in Gordon Plaza. Not knowing the dirt was filled with 149 toxic contaminants, 49 of them linked to cancer, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s.

It is considered one of the worst examples of environmental injustice in U.S. history, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Some residents of the converted landfill are reportedly stuck with homes they can’t resell and plagued with various forms of cancer and other sicknesses. About 5,000 residents won millions in state court judgments against the city, housing authority and the local public school system, but officials have refused to pay the damages.

Residents worry that the money may not be enough to buy new homes elsewhere in New Orleans.

“This case is a living example of the need for environmental justice. And it screams out as an example of environmental racism,” said Suzette Bagneris, the lead attorney for the residents’ class-action suit.

“The residents of the Agriculture Street Landfill were hard-working, honest folks who worked multiple jobs trying to attain the American Dream of homeownership, only to suffer an American nightmare when the very soil under their homes literally started to kill them.”

The Agriculture Street Landfill was the city’s residential, medical and industrial wasteland for nearly 50 years. The 95 acres of land was a city dump from 1909 until 1958. It was reopened for a year in 1965 for about 300 truckloads of Hurricane Betsy debris per day. The waste was reduced to ashes when the landfill was closed.

When the houses were built, the land was filled with high levels of lead, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic. The chemicals cause cancer, heart problems, reduced lung function and developmental problems in children, along with other health disorders, the Washington Post reported.

City officials claimed they had no idea about the extent of the contamination.

New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro and the city’s housing authority agreed to build the housing development on the tainted land in 1967. It was meant to attract Black people, who at the time battled redlining and other discriminatory barriers to homeownership.

The city’s first Black mayor, Ernest Nathan Morial, also bolstered the campaign to create a middle-class Black neighborhood that included Gordon Plaza, an elementary school, a public housing development called Press Park apartments and a senior housing complex. All of it was reportedly declared a Superfund site by the EPA in 1994.

Gordon Plaza resident Sheena Dedmond told The Guardian in December 2019 that she has watched nearly everyone on her block either get cancer or suffer from other serious diseases, including family members. Dedmond’s mother died of cancer, and her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry discovered a breast cancer cluster. Black women in the community’s census tract had a 57 percent excess risk of breast cancer over nine years, ending in 1997. In addition, a 2019 report by the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the census tract where houses sit had the second-highest consistent cancer rate in Louisiana.

“You could smell it and feel it on your skin and feel it in your lungs,” said Wilma Subra, a technical adviser who conducted tests on the school.

Residents filed two class-action lawsuits in 1993. City workers testified that they were aware of the contaminated soil. The EPA conducted soil tests at the former landfill in 1986. The results were kept secret, and residents were reportedly told the land was safe.

When the EPA returned in 1993, a majority of residents asked to be relocated.

According to reports, instead of paying about $12 million to move the families out of the area, the EPA spent $20 million to swap a three-foot layer of contaminated dirt for clean dirt in just 10 percent of the development. They told residents then the land was safe, but residents were leery because workers wore gas masks and hazmat suits.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” resident Jesse Perkins said. “They were looking like astronauts.”

New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Nicole Sheppard, on March 14, ruled against the city, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board and awarded $75 million to current and former residents of the neighborhood for emotional distress and property damage.

The judge credited the housing authority $13.6 million for an earlier settlement paid through insurance coverage. The city has repeatedly appealed, refusing to pay its portion of the earlier lawsuit.

The city is reportedly notorious for not paying judgments and settlements and currently has a backlog near $40 million. Attorneys for residents also said state law protects local governments from being forced to pay damages.

Residents have also complained that the money they received had to be split with the legal team, leaving them with small amounts of money. Half of the settlement from the earlier ruling went to the lawyers, leaving just a few hundred dollars per person.

Each person was to receive up to $50,000 for mental stress from the 1993 class lawsuits. A selective group of plaintiffs received up to $105,000 for the diminished value of their homes out of the $90 million judgment.

President Joe Biden’s administration has vowed to rectify environmental injustices against marginalized communities. The bipartisan infrastructure bill, signed into law in November, sets aside $3.5 billion to clean up Superfund sites. The EPA is now considering another round of soil testing that many hope could lead to relocation.

The New Orleans City Council authorized $35 million in its five-year capital investment program in January for Gordon Plaza, but it relies in part on money not yet in the bank, according to reports. Residents say the efforts come too late for cancer and disease-stricken people.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Parker Gavin, who moved to Mississippi for Gordon Plaza years ago. “It’s death over there.”

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