The City Council on Thursday gave the Housing Authority of New Orleans the go-ahead to build a community center at the Marrero Commons housing development on Earhart Boulevard, despite calls from some residents and environmental advocates to defer a vote until residents can be assured the site is free of contaminated soil.
“Based on the data we have available, I am comfortable moving forward,” said Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose district includes the site.
Cantrell said she was confident that contaminated soil discovered in 2011 has been properly removed and replaced with safe soil.
The vote to proceed was 5-2, with Jason Williams and Nadine Ramsey opposed. Both said they felt the people of the neighborhood were being offered equally unacceptable options: a community center on tainted ground or no center at all.
“They need a community center. That is a must,” Williams said. “But the fact that that is pitted against building a community center over bad ground. … It concerns me that, in 2014, those are the two options that are in front of me.”
The proposed community center at 3400 Earhart Blvd. would include a gym, barbecue pits, access to Wi-Fi and other amenities, said Eric Iglesias, project manager for the housing complex’s developer, McCormack Baron Salazar.
Until 1940, the site was part of the Clio Street/Silver City Dump, records show. The dump was closed to make way for Booker T. Washington High School, the Calliope housing development and a community center. The Calliope complex later was renamed B.W. Cooper and recently has been extensively redeveloped and renamed Marrero Commons.
HANO, under the name B.W. Cooper I LLC, applied for a building permit in 2011 to erect a leasing office and community building on the northeastern part of the development.
Toxins have been confirmed at the Booker T. Washington site, but HANO says the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has found that the proposed community center site is safe for development.
In a Dec. 9 report to the City Council, HANO’s environmental consultant, Slosky & Co. Inc., said the site had been assessed by multiple consultants who concluded that it is safe for development. Air testing done during an environmental cleanup over the past two years has not raised any red flags, leading to the conclusion that the site would be safe during construction, the report’s author, Richard Lesser, wrote.
The cleanup plan approved by DEQ called for removing contaminated soil from open or greenscape areas. It allowed contaminated soil to remain on the site if it was placed beneath “robust concrete caps,” like parking lots or building foundations, the agency said.
HANO maintains that it removed nearly 90,400 tons of soil from the housing development between November 2011 and June 2012. An additional 11,000 tons were removed from the site of the proposed building and disposed of off-site.
DEQ approved the housing agency’s work in August 2013, and in January of this year, it said the contaminated soil that remained beneath the concrete caps was “posing no risk,” according to the Slosky report.
“Further delays of this much-needed amenity are unjustified and unfairly deny Marrero Commons residents access to amenities enjoyed by other citizens of New Orleans,” Lesser wrote.
Council members Susan Guidry and James Gray said they were confident in moving forward with the plan based on the test results they’ve received about the site.
But opponents said the testing hasn’t gone far enough. They said the tests have not accounted sufficiently for soil at various depths, particularly between 2 feet and 14 feet. They also said the information presented by HANO doesn’t consider that soil can migrate horizontally from the contaminated Booker T. Washington school site onto the community center land.
“There is no basis to conclude that construction activities proposed by HANO would not disturb soil that may be contaminated,” Subra Co., an environmental consultant, said in a report on the proposal last month.
Opponents asked the council to defer the matter until its members and the residents could be given stronger assurances that the soil is not contaminated.
“Let’s not do this at the danger of putting poor children, many of them not even born yet, at risk because we’ve rushed with incomplete data on what’s in that soil,” retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré said. “We’re asking not for a red light today but for a caution light.”
Williams and Ramsey said they were not persuaded by the argument that DEQ had cleared the site for construction.
Ramsey said the issue reminded her of a case she oversaw as a Civil District Court judge. Eight years ago, she ruled that the city and its affiliated agencies, HANO and the Orleans Parish School Board, erred in developing the federally subsidized Press Park townhomes, the Gordon Plaza subdivision and Moton Elementary School on top of an old toxic waste dump without telling the residents and parents about the site’s history. The ruling was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“The similarities are shocking and frightening because I feel as if once again a carrot is being held out to an African-American, disadvantaged community that if you want a community center, if you want something in your neighborhood, it has to be on a toxic site,” Ramsey said.