by Alicia Lyttle
December 2000 (Updated January 2003)
Table of Contents
As you drive into the Gordon Plaza subdivision you notice neatly groomed one-story brick homes, you see clean streets and well manicured lawns, and it is obvious that you are in a neighborhood where the homeowners take enormous pride in their homes. What you do not see is the sorrow and grief of a community who lost a daughter at the age of 16 to cancer, which her family attributes to the chemical laden soil she played in and the produce she ate from the family garden. You do not see the pain of a community that has lost mothers and fathers prematurely to cancers, heart attacks and ‘unknown causes’. You do not see the women who have lost their breasts to breast cancer or the 2 men who were shocked to discover that they also had breast cancer. You do not see the tension, stress and frustration between neighbors. You do not see the fear in the eyes of a mother when her child steps on the front lawn. What you soon realize by reading signs posted on front lawns, is that you are driving on, and these people are living on a former city dump with soil that the United States Environmental Protection Agency tested to have over 150 chemical in it, 50 of which are cancer causing. (EPA Publication, 1999)
The History of a Landfill
The Agriculture Street Landfill Community is located on top of an old city dump in New Orleans, Louisiana. The city dump was opened from 1909 to the late 1960’s. The 190 acre dump received waste from households, construction debris, ash from municipal waste incinerators, and debris from the devastation of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. No documents were kept as to what materials were dumped into the landfill but anything from household garbage to service station oil waste was dumped here, and the landfill was often on fire and commonly referred to as ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ Shortly after the dump (which was 17 feet deep and covered 95 acres) was closed it was covered by a light layer of sand. In 1969, the city and federal government supported and financed the building of a low-income community on the landfill. Part of the landfill was developed into three subdivisions, Press Park and Gordon Plaza, a housing complex for the elderly, and a small business complex. Part of the landfill was left as undeveloped land.
1912-1948 This swampy area was used as a dump by the city of New Orleans.
1948-1958 The dump is converted and used as a sanitary landfill.
1958-1959 The landfill is closed.
1965- The landfill is reopened to receive debris created by Hurricane Betsy; open burning of waste continued for 6 to 7 months, after which the area was covered with ash from city incinerators and compacted with bulldozers.
1976-1986 The northern portion of the site was redeveloped to support housing (390 properties are on the site of the old landfill), small businesses, and the Morton Elementary School. The residential properties received a relatively thin (often 6 inches or less) covering of soil; the Moton school was built upon a few feet of clean soil.
1986 The EPA completed a site investigation. Under the “old” Hazardous Ranking System, which excluded ingestion, the site did not qualify for placement on the National Priorities List (NPL).
1993 On May 4, community leaders from the Moton Elementary School area filed complaint with the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization and requested EPA to re-evaluate the site. In September, the EPA collected additional samples for use in the revised HRS model (that reflects ingestion and a soil pathway).
1994 The EPA initiated an accelerated remedial investigation integrated with removal actions. Fieldwork was completed in May 1994, including the erection of a fence around the undeveloped area and removal of highly contaminated soils at children’s play area. The site was proposed to the NPL on August 23, 1994. Due to community concerns created by Superfund listing, the school board announced on August 24 that the Moton School would not open and that students would be bussed to a different school. The site was formerly added to the NPL on December 16,1994.
April 27, 2001 EPA completes cleanup project. 99% of the site has the first two feet of soil replaced. The remaining 1% of the site belongs to nine private homeowners in the community who elected not to participate in the removal action. (EPA Agriculture Street Home Page)
A Dirty Political DealIn 1967 the executive officer of the local public housing agency of New Orleans (HANO), Robert L. Bragnac, wrote a memo to his board of directors expressing that area civic groups were excited about the possibility of constructing more public housing units. These units were to be built on the landfill site and Mr. Bragnac recommended, “trying to obtain the junkyard as a site for public housing.” A newly formed group called the Desire Community Housing Corporation (DCHC) submitted plans to construct on the site. Construction plans for the Gordon Plaza subdivision fell short as according to reports the DCHC were supposed to remove old landfill cover dirt and replace it with eighteen inches of clean river sand, but most of the soil was never applied in order to cut costs and increase profits for the developers (Timmons-Roberts, 2000).
A program was implemented that targeted low-income African-American families for a piece of the American dream, the opportunity to own their own home. The Mayor at the time, Dutch Morial, and other city leaders billed this development as a way for low to middle income African-Americans to have a piece of the American Dream. It attracted African-Americans who were told that this would be the “new wave of power in New Orleans’ black community.” Proud resident began moving in, completely unaware that they were laying their foundations on a dump (Timmons-Roberts, 2000).
Residents of the neighborhood built on the former Agriculture
Street Landfill in New Orleans meet for a weekly update on the
progress of their environmental justice battle.
Staff photo by Thom Scott/The Times-Picayune
Residents of the neighborhood built on the former Agriculture Street Landfill in New Orleans meet for a weekly update on the progress of their environmental justice battle.
The problem here is that these people were cheated, not just out of the American Dream but cheated of the right to a clean safe environment in which to raise their families.
contractor cleaning up the undeveloped land at the site.
Photo by Alicia Lyttle
EPA contractor cleaning up the undeveloped land at the site.
The request of the people here is simple. They want to be moved out and given a chance to live on clean and solid ground. The problem is that relocation costs are estimated to be at $12 million dollars. But, as mentioned earlier this site is on the EPA’s National Priorities list and the Superfund site is being cleaned up. So, is it cheaper for the government to clean up the site than to relocate residents? The answer is a resounding NO. In fact it has cost the EPA over $20 million dollars to clean up the site (as of 12/02/00) and the site is still under ‘clean-up.’ It costs almost twice of what it would have cost to move the residents out. The EPA justifies this a few different ways. First, the EPA claims that the money is not allocated for relocation and can be used solely for cleanup and that it would literally take an act of Congress to clean up the site. The Congressional representative for the community, Congressman William Jefferson, has tried but failed in every effort to attain Congressional allocation of funds for relocation. The EPA also puts responsibility of relocation on the City, who claims to be too poor to take on such an endeavor. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who loaned and granted the money to build the homes on the landfill, shifts the blame to all of the other agencies.
So, with no one stepping up to the plate to move these families to a safer community, the EPA has cleaned up the undeveloped land, the elderly community, the Press Park Townhomes, and part of the Gordon Plaza community of homes. The residents of Gordon Plaza, most of who strongly opposed EPA’s clean-up plan are giving in to the plan. The homeowners held out hoping that their resistance would provide leverage to their campaign for a government buyout. Today, homeowners fear that they’ll have hard time refinancing or selling their properties and now many homeowners are rethinking their earlier rejection of the EPA’s cleanup plan. Residents cannot get a loan or a mortgage without EPA declaring their land “clean”. Because some banks and mortgage lenders will not write loans or mortgages on their properties, more households than originally agreed agreed to participate.“Some of our neighbors had been turned down because they didn’t have that paper,” said Coretta Smothers, a resident of Gordon Plaza Drive who has changed her mind and accepted the EPA’s offer to replace two feet of soil in her yard. “We found that this was kind of like a flag on our properties that would alert mortgage companies and banks, that our property was not one of the ones that was cleaned,” she said. (Warner, 2000).At the conclusion of the EPA cleanup program on April 27, 2001, 99% of the site had the first two feet of soil replaced. The remaining 1% of the site belongs to nine private homeowners in the community who elected not to participate in the removal action. (EPA Agriculture Street Home Page)
Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill: Community group fighting for relocation off of the Agriculture Street Landfill. As of December 2000 the president of this group was Peggy Grandpre.
DCHC: Desire Community Housing Corporation: Contractors who built on the Agriculture Street Landfill Site.
Greenpeace: An Environmental Organization that assisted the community in New Orleans and arranged for a community member to attend a U.N. meeting in Geneva Switzerland. www.greenpeace.org
Grover Hankins; Thurgood Marshall School of Law: Attorney who assisted the Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill. www.tsulaw.edu/environ/biohank.htm
Mayor Dutch Morial: The Mayor of the City of New Orleans when the Agriculture Street Landfill site was proposed as a housing development.
Mayor Mark Morial: Son of the former Mayor Dutch Morial. Mark Morial was Mayor of the City of New Orleans (2000).
Peggy Grandpre: President of Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill.
Sierra Club: Environmental Organization that assisted the Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill. www.sierraclub.org
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic: Law Clinic that assisted the community in their struggle and accompanied them to Washington, D.C. www.law.tulane.edu/programs/environmental/envirolaw/clinic.htm
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The government agency responsible for cleaning up the site. www.epa.gov
Many others played a role in this battle…
Location: The site in located in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. It is approximately three miles south of Lake Pontchartrain and about 3 miles north-northeast of the Vieux Caree and the Central Business District. The approximate geographic coordinates for the center of the site 29059’20’’
Population: The 1990 Census identifies 390 residential units (some 1,000 people) on the site. The community is predominantly (97% +) African-American, with middle-to-low income levels.
Settings: The 95 acre former city disposal area that has been partially redeveloped. 47 acres of the site have private and public housing: the Press Park Community Center; a recreation center; retail businesses, and the Moton Elementary school. The remainder of the site is undeveloped and covered by dense vegetation.
As part of the environmental justice movement this community has brought the issues of “contaminated communities” to the forefront of the movement. Their struggle took them to City Hall, to their Senators’ offices and to meet with their Congressman William Jefferson. They traveled to Washington D.C., to meet with their representatives and with HUD, with the EPA and with members of Congress concerned about environmental justice. Elodia Blanco traveled as the neighborhood’s representative to Geneva Switzerland to testify at the United Nations (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights. This community will continue to fight for their right to a clean and safe environment.
The Agriculture Street Landfill community holds community meeting every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the front yard or home of a community member. The community meetings have been essential in mobilizing, educating, and strategizing.
This community networked with small groups as well as large national organizations such as Greenpeace and CHEJ (Citizens for Health Environment and Justice). “Lois Gibbs [President of CHEJ] was essential in helping us strategize as was Ms. Williams [community leader in Escambia, Florida who was successful in getting her community relocated] as well as many many others.” (Grandpre, 2000).
The community has received various forms of legal support from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
Staff photo by Thom Scott/The Times-Picayune
Residents of the Agriculture Street Landfill neighborhood
in New Orleans protest in front of the White House. Residents'
homes are built on top of soil found to contain 149 toxins,
44 of which are cancer causing.
Staff photo by Thom Scott/The Times-Picayune
Residents of the Agriculture Street Landfill neighborhood in New Orleans protest in front of the White House. Residents' homes are built on top of soil found to contain 149 toxins, 44 of which are cancer causing.
“We think the only solution to this problem is for the community to be relocated and we believe that this will happen in the court or through a Title VI complaint,” (Grandpre, 2000). Amanda Leiker, an activist who volunteered with the community for 2 years has a message fort eh EPA and the City of New Orleans, “To the EPA: Don’t be so afraid to set a precedent. Do what’s right (relocation) for the community, not what’s right for the bureaucrats in Washington. To the City: Take responsibility for the City’s mistakes; it was a City of New Orleans landfill, a City of New Orleans development project, and so it is a City of New Orleans responsibility to see that these residents are relocated,” (Leiker, 2000).
Rebecca Dayries, Community Outreach Coordinator at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic states, “Apparently, after the first rain that the homes with this ‘new clean soil’ got the settling was bad. Residents claim that some of the sand has washed away. The community feels that this is so political and that no agency is doing anything. I hope someone steps up to the plate,” (Dayries, 2000).
Because of residents’ fears that the cleanup was extremely superficial they have not given up and will continue to fight for relocation. Peggy Grandpre, the long time leader of the Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill, says, “We will continue to fight. We are going to file a Title VI complaint. If this is not a clear cut case of Title VI, I don’t know what is.” (Grandpre, 2000).
Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill
Community Outreach Coordinator
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic
Former volunteer with the community
Coalition Against Environmental Racism, Bio of Peggy W. Grandpre,
Daugherty, Christi. (1998) “Digging In.” The Gambit (New Orleans). November 3
Dayries, Rebecca. (December, 5, 2000) Interview. Community Outreach Coordinator. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
ECO-USA.Net, "Louisiana Waste Sites"
EPA Region 6 Agriculture Street Home Page.
EPA Publication. (October 4, 1999) Agriculture Street Landfill, Louisiana EPA ID # LAD981056997.
Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. “Record of Decision (ROD) Abstracts: Agriculture Street Landfill.”
http://www.epa.gov/oerrpage/superfund/sites/rodsites/ 0600646.htm. Accessed 7-27-99. EPA Record of Decision.
ENVIROSENSE, EPA, Air Enforcement Division, National Enforcement Highlights
Grandpre, Peggy. (December 3, 2000) Interview. President Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill.
Grandpre, Peggy. (2000 – to be published) Evaluations of health hazards in communities exposed to environmental toxicant. Environmental health problems –A communities perspective.
Knight, Danielle. (April 4, 1999) "USA: Environmental Justice Delegation Heads to UN Commission" Corporate Watch.
Amanda. Environmental Racism and Women
in Louisiana, The Pier Glass.
Leiker, Amanda. Agriculture Street. Unpublished paper.
Motavalli, Jim. (July-August 1998) "Polluters That Dump on Communities of Color Are Finally Being Brought to Justice" E-Magazine Toxic Targets
National Council of Churches. (1998) NCC News Archives, African American Church Leaders Pledge Their Support to the Struggle Against Environmental Racism.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)Worker Education and Training Program: Proceedings of the Spring Awardee Meeting And Superfund Job Training Initiative Meeting. (April 19-20, 1999). http://220.127.116.11/wetp/clear/resource/99vttechandaward/report/99awardee_sjti_finalreport.htm
New Orleans City Planning Commission, (1999) Land Use Plan "Planning District Seven "
Schleifstein, Mark. (July 10, 1999) “Ag Street residents livid over EPA ruling.” New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Sierra Club, Agriculture Street Landfill Site, http://www.sierraclub.org/toxics/resources/agstreet.asp
Timmons Roberts, J. ; Melissa Toffolon-Weiss, (Latest edits: August 11, 2000. 3pm) "CHRONICLES FROM THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FRONTLINE" MS. SUBMITTED TO CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS (an unpublished book)
US Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund Site New Orleans, Louisiana http://www.mvn.usace.army.mil/pd/iis/agriculture.htm
Warner, Coleman. (September 13, 2000) “Residents relent on cleanup, Homeowners seek to avoid loan snags.” The Times Picayune (New Orleans).