Opponents of building a new school on top of the contaminated soil that lies under the shuttered Booker T. Washington High School on Earhart Boulevard argued for new restrictions and disclosure requirements Tuesday as they explained to members of the New Orleans City Council the dangers they think the site could pose.
The discussion came as measures are moving forward in the state House of Representatives and the City Council that take aim at the Recovery School District’s plans to rebuild on the site and move students from the Walter L. Cohen School to the new property, once the site of the city’s second-biggest landfill.
The issue has raised claims of racial discrimination because the new school would serve a predominantly black population. It also shows a lack of progress in how the city is handling these issues, said Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University.
“That’s what I find so insulting, that all these years later we would still find that suitable for us,” said Wright, who is black. “Everything has changed, the look of the City Council and everything, but we’re making the same decisions that we made during that (pre-civil rights) period in our history.” She said it “is astounding to me.”
Booker T. Washington was built on the site of the former Clio Street/Silver City dump, which was in operation from the late 1890s until the 1930s.
Lead concentrations in the soil there are about 24 times higher than the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency for playgrounds and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality standards for residential properties.
The opponents focused their arguments on the lead concentrations in the soil at the site, though they noted that many other contaminants have been found.
Lead exposure can cause a wide variety of developmental problems in children, including permanently impairing a variety of mental functions. It also has been linked to an increase in violent behavior.
The RSD’s plans for the site call for removing the top 3 feet of contaminated soil, installing a geotextile barrier to seal off the underlying soil and laying down 6 feet of clean dirt. But that would leave at least a dozen feet of contaminated soil underneath, opponents argued.
The RSD did not have a representative at Tuesday’s meeting, but officials have previously said they are “very confident” in their remediation plans for the site.
A plan like the one for the Booker T. Washington property requires careful monitoring to ensure that the safeguards continue to be effective, particularly in New Orleans, where unstable soil can subside, potentially leading to rips in the barrier that would allow toxins to leach through, said Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Law Clinic. In addition, such a proposal would require long-term monitoring and maintenance, and there is nothing to ensure that will be done, Babich said.
“Will the funding really be there to inspect and maintain?” he asked — a question that he said was especially important because “children do funny things, including eating dirt and digging holes.”
A bill by state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, that would ban the construction of schools on former waste sites is scheduled to have its first hearing Wednesday in Baton Rouge. Thirty other states have similar requirements.
“We want to talk about being in the forefront, but this is a case where we have not been in the forefront. We’re probably behind,” Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said.
A less prohibitive move will be debated soon by the City Council. Ramsey plans to introduce an amendment to the new comprehensive zoning ordinance, which will be debated on May 14, that would require disclosure of toxins in the soil at school sites.
When she was a Civil District Court judge, Ramsey oversaw a class-action suit by residents who lived in properties built on the former Agriculture Street landfill.
Her amendment would not prevent schools from being built on contaminated sites but would ensure the potential hazards are disclosed to the community.
“I want to make sure government is doing what it does but with eyes wide open,” Ramsey said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.