Environmental Justice

In New Orleans and across the Gulf Region, exposure to toxic soil, air, and water is a racial justice and human rights crisis. Whether it involved the post-storm decisions by state officials to re-open a toxic landfill for hurricane debris near the homes of Black and Vietnamese residents or the housing of nearly 140,000 displaced Gulf residents in toxic formaldehyde-laden FEMA trailers –the struggle for environmental justice has been a strong theme throughout the past 10 years of recovery. Communities of color have shouldered the burden of organizing to stop these efforts, in part, because their lives depended on it. Environmental racism has contributed to some of the highest rates of asthma, cancer, and health ailments among African Americans in the Gulf region. Louisiana has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation, with African Americans ranking 30% higher than the state average.

Ten years after Katrina, the struggle for environmental justice continues. At present, the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board plan to construct a new charter school, Cohen College Prep, on land contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cancer-causing chemicals. The site was formerly used as a city waste disposal known as the Clio Street/Silver City Dump. The City of New Orleans operated the dump, where more than 150 tons of waste were disposed on a daily basis. The RSD’s plan provides inadequate cleanup for building on the new site and scientists have called the plan “a threat to human health, especially for children, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, and people with chronic illnesses.”

This isn’t the first time that the City of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board have constructed a school on a toxic site. In the 1960s, city and school officials failed to disclose to residents of Press Park and Gordon Plaza that their homes and elementary school were built on top of the Agriculture Street Landfill. Black residents suffered elevated levels of cancer, stress, asthma, and upper respiratory problems as a result of living on poisonous grounds. In February 2015, residents of Press Park and Gordon Plaza settled a near 20-year lawsuit against city and school officials for their exposure to pollutants, toxic metals, and chemicals in their homes and school grounds, but the settlement barely scratched the surface to repair the harm inflicted on this community – in particular, the harm to Black children.

In June 2015, the Louisiana legislature failed to pass a bill that would have prevented the construction of public schools for grades K-12 on contaminated waste lands. In August 2015, Walter Cohen Alumni Association and the Sierra Club, in partnership with the Advocates for Environmental Human Rights and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, took steps to file litigation in federal court to stop the construction of Cohen Prep School. If opened, Cohen Prep, like most public schools in New Orleans, will serve a predominately Black student population. What message are we sending about the value of Black lives?

Key Recovery Data

30% Louisiana has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation, with African Americans ranking 30% higher than the state average.
140,000 Families housed in toxic formaldehyde FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina
2,000 Truckloads of toxic waste and debris per day entered a landfill located in mostly African American east New Orleans
0 Protections for Louisiana schoolchildren to prevent the construction of K-12 schools on land formerly used as hazardous waste sites

FIND OUT MORE Advocates for Environmental Human Rights
Reading, writing & arsenic: New Orleans school planned atop toxic dump (Grist, November 20, 2013)
The poisoned promises of Agriculture Street (The Times-Picayune, April 22, 2015)
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle (New York Times, May 8, 2006)
Class-action suit against FEMA trailer manufacturers settled for $42.6 million (NBC, September 28, 2012)
Toxic waste sites still OK for Louisiana schools, senators decide (Times Picayune, June 4, 2015)