They Were Sold the American Dream, Got a Toxic Mess

Residents of NOLA's Gordon Plaza are sitting on contaminated land
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 10, 2022 4:15 PM CDT
Gordon Plaza: Environmental Injustice at Its Worst
EPA Administrator Michael Regan listens as resident Shannon Rainey speaks during tour of Gordon Plaza in New Orleans, one stop on Regan’s five-day “Journey to Justice” tour from Mississippi to Texas, which focused on low-income, mostly minority communities adversely affected by industrial pollution.   (AP Photo/Matthew Daly)

(Newser) – For an egregious example of environmental injustice, look no farther than Gordon Plaza, a housing development in NOLA's Upper Ninth Ward. As Darryl Fears writes for the Washington Post, the neighborhood's story begins in the late 1970s. "Racist housing covenants, redlining, and legal racial separation" had kept Black families out of the city's best neighborhoods; this middle-class development for Black residents was a bid to start to reverse that. It was no secret that the neighborhood was built on the site of the old Agriculture Street Landfill; in the late 1960s, the dump's contents had been "burned, covered with a layer of the city’s incinerator ash and grinded into the earth." But everyone from the city housing authority to the EPA promised the land was safe, and 57 families moved in. In 1986, an elementary school was added.

The EPA tested the land that year and didn't disclose the results; it retested in 1993 and identified 149 known contaminants. The area was declared a Superfund site in 1994, by which time cancer had become "a fact of life" for people there. Most residents asked to be relocated, which would have cost an estimated $12 million. Instead, "the EPA spent $20 million to remediate the soil, swapping a three-foot layer of contaminated dirt for clean dirt in just 10% of the development," writes Fears. The saga has dragged on through the courts (city officials have refused to pay a $75 million judgment), Hurricane Katrina, and multiple administrations. Current EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited last year and promised to reconsider residents' relocation demands; "they reminded him that his agency was a major part of the problem." (Read more here.)

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