An environmental scientist, a retired U.S. Army general and alumni from an Uptown high school gathered Thursday night at a town hall meeting to protest the construction of a new high school on the site of a former city dump.
The Recovery School District is planning to build the school, which does not have a name, at the former location of Booker T. Washington High School. The site, in the 1200 block of South Roman Street, was home to the Silver City landfill until about 1930.
At Thursday’s meeting, speakers were sharply critical of the RSD’s decision to build the school after tests conducted by a subcontractor in 2012 revealed the presence of numerous heavy metals in the soil.
“We’ve got an appointed board that doesn’t respect voters when making a decision about putting a school on top of a toxic dump,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, a native Louisianian. “This is the same thing that’s been happening to poor people in Louisiana for a long time.”
Honoré, who commanded the joint task force that coordinated relief in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was one of a handful of speakers who decried the project as a toxic health hazard to students, teachers and neighbors.
Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental consultant, told an audience of about 75 people at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church that tests at the site had revealed unacceptable levels of heavy metals — such as antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc — in soil samples as deep as 15 feet.
She described the RSD’s mediation plan, which would excavate 3 feet of contaminated soil and replace it with 3 feet of clean soil, as woefully inadequate.
“It’s problematic because a number of schools have built on top of waste sites, and it has always had impact on the school, the staff and the teachers,” she said.
The “corrective action plan” the RSD intends to follow was approved by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality earlier this year.
However, in March, the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association filed a lawsuit against the department, claiming the plan didn’t adequately mediate the contamination or provide safeguards to protect neighbors from chemicals.
“We’re not just concerned about Cohen students, but all students,” said James Raby, president of the association. “Would you want to send your child to a contaminated site?”
Cohen, in the 3500 block of Dryades Street, is scheduled to be shuttered; its students would be sent to the new school at the Booker T. Washington site.
Raby acknowledged his group was opposed to the move from the start, but he said it became more upset after learning of the possible contamination issues.
Patrick Dobard, the RSD superintendent, emphasized in an interview Thursday his commitment to ensuring the safety of all students and said the site had been approved during a master planning process with plenty of community input.
“We feel very confident that our plan ensures proper mediation of the site,” he said.
It’s also being backed by the members of the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association.
“There is no major contamination at Booker T. Washington — period,” said Wayne M. Jones, president of the Washington association. “We do not have a third eye coming out a center of a forehead.”
Jones said he felt the impetus behind the lawsuit wasn’t the former dump but Cohen alumni’s frustration at their school closing.
Monique Harden, an attorney representing the Cohen Alumni Association, said the chemicals present could cause a slew of health hazards, ranging from nausea to cancer.
“The problem is that the RSD has put together a plan to deal with the contaminants that leaves out health and safety requirements that are set in the law,” she said.
She also compared the development to Moton Elementary School, which was built on the former site of the Agriculture Street Landfill in 1985. Employees and students of the school later filed lawsuits against the Orleans Parish School Board, claiming chemicals in the dump made them sick.
On Thursday, Raby and the Cohen Alumni Association filed for an injunction to stop a meeting of the RSD’s Master Plan Oversight Committee. Civil District Court Judge Regina Bartholomew signed the order, saying the meeting’s agenda wasn’t specific enough, and “there is no reason to believe that the meeting will be conducted pursuant to a plan that is contrary to the agenda.”
Dobard said he didn’t understand the intention of the injunction.
“It was disappointing to not have that opportunity, and I am at a total loss as to why Mr. Raby and the Alumni Association did this,” he said.
Neither Raby nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday evening.