Two New Orleans residents filed a lawsuit against the city Wednesday over radioactive material that workers recently dug up and removed from the Gert Town neighborhood, arguing that officials had known about the problem for years and should have relocated nearby residents while they worked to remove the material.

The suit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court and seeking class-action status, comes after city crews and contractors in hazmat suits completed remediation work last week on Lowerline Street near Coolidge Court, near the former site of the Thompson-Hayward Chemical Co. plant.

Residents and their attorneys say they have not been able to get detailed information about the contamination or its possible health effects.

Madro Bandaries, one of the attorneys working on the case, said a key part of the suit is finding out what the levels of radiation are and whether residents should be concerned despite assurances from city officials that there will be no health effects.

“They want to find out if they’ve got health problems. They want to find out if they’re going to die sooner than they should. They want to find out what’s going to happen to their grandchildren,” Bandaries said.

Most of the information the neighborhood has been provided has come from a flyer posted on doors in the area notifying them of the work and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sheet of “frequently asked questions” about Radium-226, which the suit alleges is what contaminated the site.

City officials declined Wednesday to comment on the suit or the work to remove the radioactive material, citing an internal policy that prohibits them from speaking on pending litigation.

Last week, city Communications Director Beau Tidwell told WWL-TV the remediation effort had been completed and the material removed “out of an abundance of caution.” He said there was no risk of health problems.

One of the plaintiffs, Erick Lassair, said he grew up in the neighborhood, owns a warehouse nearby and that his sisters still live right next to the site. Lassair was diagnosed with leukemia four decades ago, and he said he’s worried about potential health issues since he knows of at least two other people who had cancer and lived within a two-block radius of the former factory.

“I thought this was over with 20 years ago,” Lassair said, referring to previous work to clean up the site.

The Thompson-Hayward factory, which opened in 1941, produced a variety of pesticides and herbicides, including one of the main components in Agent Orange, before being converted to a chemical warehouse in the late 1970s.

Even after the plant closed, those in nearby areas complained of noxious odors, and by the late 1980s, Harcos Chemicals, which had purchased the site at the beginning of the decade, was ordered to remediate chemicals on the site and in the nearby sewer system.

That contamination eventually led to a nearly $51.6 million settlement with residents of the neighborhood.

However, news articles about that suit did not mention radioactive contamination on the site, and it was not immediately clear why radium would have been used at the factory.

Radium has been used for a number of products, including luminescent dials and watch hands, but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not list pesticides or other chemicals as one of its common uses.

The lawsuit alleges that the radiation was first discovered in 2013, while officials were “scanning for security threats” while the city was preparing to host the Super Bowl.

The suit alleges that if it's true the city knew about the contamination and did not warn residents, it needlessly exposed them to “illness and death.”

It adds that the city should have moved residents away from the site while the material was being removed.

Attorney Steven Rando, who is also involved in the case, charged that the city wouldn't have acted the way it did if the contamination had been found in a richer, whiter neighborhood.

"I would suggest to you if they did this in the Garden District, people would immediately be asking to evacuate and would be placed somewhere else,” Rando said. “There’s no relocation for these people.”


Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​