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'We're Just Waiting to Die': The Black Residents Living on Top of a Toxic Landfill Site
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=52547"><span class="small">Lauren Zanolli, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Friday, 13 December 2019 14:14

Zanolli writes: "In the 1980s, black New Orleanians were encouraged to buy houses built by the city on top of a toxic landfill."

Marilyn Amar stands in front of her home in the Gordon Plaza neighborhood, where she has lived since 1990. (photo: William Wilmer/Guardian UK)
Marilyn Amar stands in front of her home in the Gordon Plaza neighborhood, where she has lived since 1990. (photo: William Wilmer/Guardian UK)

'We're Just Waiting to Die': The Black Residents Living on Top of a Toxic Landfill Site

By Lauren Zanolli, Guardian UK

13 December 19

In the 1980s, black New Orleanians were encouraged to buy houses built by the city on top of a toxic landfill. Three decades later it is one of Louisiana’s worst cancer hotspots, but residents of Gordon Plaza are still fighting to be relocated

n 1988, Jesse Perkins was 27 years old and trying to get his piece of the American dream.

With savings from his job at New Orleans’ sewage and water board, he purchased his first home in Gordon Plaza, a newly built subdivision in the city’s Desire neighborhood. The modest single-family home was one of dozens developed by the city’s housing authority, built with the help of federal funds, and marketed as affordable housing to African Americans starting to rise into the city’s middle class.

Perkins planned to live there with his mother and, hopefully, one day pass it on to his future children. Now, he said, “I wouldn’t give it to a dog”.

Like other residents who bought in Gordon Plaza in the 80s and early 90s, Perkins says he had no idea his house was built on top of a toxic dump.

“It’s gone from the American dream to a nightmare,” said Perkins, now 68. In his backyard, a giant orange tree grows, but he can’t eat any of its fruit.

After chemical drums and other detritus started literally popping out of front yards, the EPA began testing the soil in the 1980s. The land was rich in arsenic, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and had extremely high levels of lead, among other powerful toxins left behind by the Agriculture Street landfill. All told, about 150 contaminants have been found in the soil, 49 of which are known carcinogens.

In 1994 the area – including Gordon Plaza, an elementary school, a public housing development called Press Park apartments and a senior housing complex – was declared a Superfund site (a US federal government program designed to fund the clean-up of toxic wastes).

“Sometimes I think it’s criminal,” said Perkins. “How can you treat human beings like this?”

‘The fight for our lives’

For 50 years, from 1909 to 1958, the city’s medical, municipal and industrial waste was sent here to be incinerated and sprayed with now banned pesticides. In the late 90s city officials started planning low-income housing developments here.

Last year, a local developer converted an abandoned building on the original Press Park site into new apartments.

A buoyant and friendly man with a quick smile, Perkins is a member of Residents of Gordon Plaza Inc, a community not-for-profit. Despite multiple legal victories, the group has been fighting for relocation since the 1990s, unsuccessfully lobbying six different mayors. They are now ramping up pressure on the current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, to take action.

Over the past three decades, residents here have won two class action lawsuits against city agencies and insurance companies totaling more than $26m. A 2015 settlement with insurance companies garnered small payments – about $3,000 to $10,000 – for all but nine plaintiffs on the case. But the city has yet to pay out anything because there is no legal mechanism to force them.

“They all hid behind the law,” Perkins says of city officials’ buck-passing. “That allows them to drag this thing out so long and they will never pay a penny.”

The Guardian is running a series called Cancer Town over the course of the next year from Reserve, a small town outside of New Orleans, to draw attention communities who are fighting to win the right to a clean and safe environment for their children. The area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is notoriously polluted and often referred to as Cancer Alley.

In 2018, Residents of Gordon Plaza sued the city of New Orleans and then mayor Mitch Landrieu. The suit, which was passed on to Mayor Cantrell after entering office alleges the city knowingly duped owners into buying on toxic land and that current levels of contamination are above health standards, endangering the lives of residents.

Earlier this year, a report by the Louisiana Tumor Registry found the census tract in which Gordon Plaza is located had the second-highest cancer rate in Louisiana, at 745 cases per million people, compared to a state average of 489.

“We’re in the fight for our lives,” said Perkins. “Y’all put us in this situation … We thought we bought our houses on clean, safe land!”

Shannon Rainey, the persistent force behind this decades-long struggle and the president of Residents of Gordon Plaza, put it bluntly: “They used us as guinea pigs,” she said. “You knew this was a toxic landfill, so y’all used us as guinea pigs to see how long black folks can live on top of a toxic landfill.”

The ground beneath their feet

Marilyn Amar doesn’t like to go outside. She keeps the windows and doors at her tidy Gordon Plaza home closed, dusts every day and changes the air vents “constantly”. A friend takes care of her lawn so she doesn’t have to be exposed to the dust, soil and fumes from her yard that she believes caused her breast cancer. “God bless him,” she says.

The 69-year-old New Orleans native has been here for decades. In the 1970s, she lived in the Press Park apartments – a neighboring public housing site, also built on the landfill, that was ordered closed after Katrina and the last abandoned remnants of which were finally demolished by the city last year.

Amar bought her Gordon Plaza home in 1990, never knowing that the site was a former toxic landfill. Before the full extent of soil contamination was revealed, she and her son ate tomatoes from her backyard garden. Now she links that homegrown produce to her cancer and her son’s mysterious childhood illnesses, which ultimately led to intestinal surgery. 

Her cancer is not unusual here. In a 1997 report, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that women living on the former landfill site had a 60% excess risk of breast cancer.

Besides cancer, many residents here report chronic respiratory, gastrointestinal and skin ailments.

“I believe if there were at least two Caucasian people back here, we would not still be here,” said Lydwina Hurst, a neighbor of Amar and resident of Gordon Plaza since 1989. The 75-year-old breast cancer survivor has undergone two surgeries and 28 rounds of radiation to combat the disease.

After the area was declared a Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the city of New Orleans and Gordon Plaza residents engaged in relocation talks, but couldn’t strike a deal after the city refused to contribute “in-kind services” that could help fund the move.

Instead, in 1997 the EPA pursued a controversial clean-up plan: dig up 2ft of the contaminated topsoil, place a permeable liner, known as a geotextile mat, and re-cover it with clean dirt. Only exposed soil was excavated, leaving landfill contamination under homes, sidewalks, roads and any other developed surface.

While EPA contractors swarmed the area in hazmat suits, disturbing and piling contaminated soil, residents were not relocated, but instead told it was safe to stay on site.

The geotextile mat – which looks like the thin black fabric often used to line backyard garden beds – was never meant to stop contaminants or fumes from migrating upwards. Instead it serves as a visual cue for anyone digging underground to stop.

“The toxins are still there!” said Amar. “They did a cover-up, not a clean-up.”

By EPA’s own calculations, if soil below the mat were to rise to the surface, cancer risks would increase by nearly fivefold.

Like most things in New Orleans, time in Gordon Plaza is divided into “before” and “after” Hurricane Katrina.

The EPA has maintained Katrina had little impact on its clean-up, even though its soil testing has been limited (Superfund laws don’t require regular comprehensive testing on sites). The agency tested two elements after the storm – lead and arsenic – and found lead levels stable. But data gaps have left open questions in the agency’s own conclusions – a 2008 report notes the risk for PAHs still might pose “indeterminate” risk to residents.

After the levees broke and toxic water smothered the area for three weeks, the agency determined the top layer of cover soil survived Katrina and was “protective of human health”.

Outside scientists have drawn very different conclusions.

Wilma Subra, a renowned environmental scientist and Superfund expert who helped shape that program’s laws, has served as a technical consultant to Gordon Plaza residents since the 1990s. She says that to this day, residents are being directly exposed to carcinogenic landfill toxins through several pathways.

“We clearly identified that people were in direct contact with contamination,” said Subra, who estimates that the EPA clean-up only touched about 10% of the site’s total area.

Subra contends that after Katrina, leachate – groundwater that has flowed through the contaminated soil, carrying chemicals with it – flowed across the area. Her tests showed carcinogens such as dioxins, furans and several PAHs were all present in the soil in levels that exceeded regulatory standards.

In 1997 Subra estimated relocation would have cost about $12m, compared with the $20m spent for remediation. Residents today are asking the city for $20m to move the 54 families still living there.

“EPA believes human health and the environment are protected from hazardous substances found at the Agriculture Street landfill site. Specific health problems affecting an individual are best addressed by discussing them with a healthcare provider,” an EPA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Between the EPA’s contention that the soil is safe, and the city’s intransigence on relocation or lawsuit payments, residents here are left with few choices: stay, knowing the health risks, or walk away from their investment, an option that anyone who could afford to do so has already exercised.

“I feel that we are enslaved in this community,” said Hurst. “Everybody wants to live comfortable. You work hard, you pay taxes, you do everything they have asked you to do to be an American citizen and then you, I feel, get kicked.”

Generational trauma

Sheena Dedmond, 35, is sitting on her plush, champagne-colored couch, once owned by her mother

Her mother died of cancer, her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she has watched nearly everyone on her block either get cancer or suffer from other serious diseases.

She rattles off names, diagnoses and locations like a cancer cartographer: Ms Viola and her son on the corner, Mr Don and his daughter next door, Ms Phyllis in the Press Park apartments, Mr Lionel down the street.

“It’s not just that we’re living on top of cancer-causing chemicals,” she said. “It’s like a living cemetery. We’re just waiting to die.”

This summer, Cantrell met with Residents of Gordon Plaza, promising some kind of response in September. They’re still waiting for her reply.

“The mayor continues to explore opportunities for a possible resolution,” LaTonya Norton, Cantrell’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement.

Officials at the state level deferred to city leadership, while noting the need for further investigation.

“There is no disputing the data about those cancer rates,” Bob Johannessen, communications director for the Louisiana department of health, said of Gordon Plaza.

Many residents here vying for relocation say that while they blame the city government first and foremost for their trouble, few intend to leave the Crescent city.

“I’m New Orleans homegrown, everybody and everything I love is in New Orleans,” said Perkins. An avid marathon runner and triathlete, sometimes he jogs or bikes three miles north to check out the available lots at Pontchartrain Park, a lakeside suburban neighborhood built in the 1950s and the city’s first black subdivision.

“I don’t want to die fighting this. I’m gonna get myself out of here if need be.” your social media marketing partner