New Orleans’ Gordon Plaza is a toxic nightmare

Viola Allen’s dream home sits atop a nightmare. The city of New Orleans built 67 ranch-style houses on a sprawling former garbage dump in the late 1970s without saying a word to the Black, mostly first-time home buyers who were encouraged to move there by city officials. Under the untreated soil where the new residents planted fruit trees, grew flower gardens and watched their children play in the dirt were 149 toxic contaminants, 49 of them linked to cancer, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The saga of 57 families living on the former Agriculture Street Landfill in the Gordon Plaza housing subdivision is considered by many to be one of the worst examples of environmental injustice in the United States.

The boundaries of the old landfill were certified as a Superfund site in 1994. And now, nearly three decades after residents finally learned they were living on deadly ground, government officials have refused their demand to be relocated from homes that lost their appeal and nearly all of their value. The properties are almost impossible to sell because of the contamination, said Akeem, who was 11 when EPA officials and environmental experts visited his mom that day in 1993.

Even more audacious, lawyers and advocates for the homeowners say, is that after residents were originally awarded a $90 million state court judgment against the city — which approved the construction — officials have refused to pay. The housing authority, which funded the development with federal dollars, and the public school system, which built an elementary school at the site well after the contamination was revealed, have also refused to pay their share of the damages.

An obscure Louisiana law shields municipalities from being forced to pay damages, attorneys said. Earlier this month, a judge reaffirmed a 2006 court decision but agreed with an appellate court’s decision to lower the damages, awarding $75 million to a class of 5,000 plaintiffs. Lawyers said they doubt that the plaintiffs will ever see a dime.

“This case is a living example of the need for environmental justice. And it screams out as an example of environmental racism,” said Suzette Bagneris, the lead attorney for the class.

“The residents of the Agriculture Street Landfill were hard-working, honest folks who worked multiple jobs trying to attain the American Dream of homeownership, only to suffer an American nightmare when the very soil under their homes literally started to kill them.”

It’s yet another challenge that the Biden administration has taken on in its bid to right historic wrongs done to underprivileged communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.

The solution for Gordon Plaza is far more difficult than the successes the administration has achieved so far. Last May, the administration shut down an error-prone oil and gas refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands that dumped oil on people of color. That same month, the administration influenced the city of Chicago to conduct a lengthy environmental impact assessment as officials mulled whether to allow an industrial metal scrapyard to operate in a Mexican American area already teeming with industrial pollution sites. The permit was denied in February.

During his “Journey to Justice” tour in November, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Gordon Plaza and spoke with homeowners. They reminded him that his agency was a major part of the problem.

Before the EPA warned Allen and her neighbors that the ground where they raised their families was toxic, it spent nine years telling them it was safe. Between 1986 and 1993, the EPA reassessed how it categorized toxicity of a number of contaminants and finally deemed that the Agriculture Street Landfill site was unsafe.

As federal and local officials stood by, cancer became a fact of life for the people there. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry discovered a breast cancer cluster and reported that Black women in the Agriculture Street Landfill census tract had a 57 percent excess risk of breast cancer over nine years, ending in 1997. More recently, a 2019 report by the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the census tract where Gordon Plaza sits had the second-highest consistent cancer rate in Louisiana.

It is nearly impossible to link cancer to a toxic substance, so experts could not be definitive about the risk. But residents were terrified.

“Everybody knows somebody in the neighborhood who has cancer and has died from cancer,” said Akeem, who moved away from the area decades ago when he joined the military. He never moved back.

Gordon Plaza was a beacon for Black people who dreamed of owning a home.

Located in a part of New Orleans with a come-hither name, Desire, and a curvy road called Abundance in the Upper Ninth Ward, it dripped with Big Easy charm.

Black people had been excluded from the best neighborhoods by racist housing covenants, redlining and legal racial separation, but this middle-class housing was built especially for them.

As African Americans began to ascend in population and voting power, the city’s White mayor, Victor Schiro, entered into a cooperative agreement with the White-run housing authority in 1967 to plan the new development.

When Press Park apartments and townhomes, a senior living facility, Gordon Plaza and a shopping center were completed in the early 1980s, New Orleans had its first Black mayor, Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial.

Morial encouraged his Black constituents, some of whom worked in his own administration, to buy into the dream.

City officials were silent about the bleak history of the 95-acre site selected for construction. But within a few years, the tragic reality became the talk of New Orleans.

Shannon Rainey realized something was wrong in the early 1990s as she dug a hole behind her house to plant a tree. Her shovel struck a solid object.

“I found a canister in my yard, and it had just a skeleton head on it along with the X,” said Rainey, who worked in a city administrative office under Morial and had inside information about the sale of homes in Gordon Plaza. She knew the X stood for crossbones. “Now I’m breathing toxins every day,” she said.

Nate Parker realized something was wrong when he walked out his front door in the early 1990s and saw a white vapor rising from the soil. “In the morning, my dad would walk and he saw smoke coming from off the ground,” said his daughter, Elaine Parker Gavin.

Parker was a “do the right thing” kind of father who coveted homeownership as a financial legacy for his family, Gavin said. With a shopping center and plans for an elementary school, Parker and other residents felt they had no reason to ever leave their all-inclusive community.

Akeem’s voiced cracked as he talked about his adoptive mother’s reaction after she learned of the contamination, and how the news altered their lives. “She never regrouped,” he said. “She always came to us apologizing. She was, like, ‘I’m killing my kids.’”

Akeem was ordered to stop playing in the yard, and his mom had a new daily chore — wiping away household dust with bleach.

A woman who once focused on the positive became an angry crusader. She dragged Akeem to meetings where environmentalists and health consultants warned residents of the possible effects of living on land saturated with poison: neurological disorder, memory loss, stomach ailments and more, Akeem said.

Studies have linked arsenic toxicity to Alzheimer’s disease. “My mom has dementia, the same thing that EPA told them that they can possibly get,” he said.

“She doesn’t know who I am. She lives in that same house because she has nowhere else to go.”

Jesse Perkins, born and raised in the Desire Housing Projects, leaped at the chance to buy his first home.

“My mother had never, ever had a home that she actually could call her own,” said Perkins, a retired manager for the city sewage and water board. “So that was everything. I worked so hard, so long, so many hours, day and night, strenuous work, sacrificing and saving my dollars.”

The family planted and ate from a vegetable garden. One day, an environmental activist warned him of the danger. “I knew at that point in time that … we can’t grow tomatoes here,” Perkins said.

Even Beverly Wright, a professor and environmental expert, was unaware. While she didn’t live at the site, her husband had a pest control contract there.

“I remember him coming home and he would say, ‘Bev, that place is a dump,’” said Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans.

One day she noticed that his face “had broken out on his forehead with … little blisters and stuff,” she said. “Even then we did not put it together.”

The swampy 95-acre Agriculture Street Landfill was one of the city’s main resting places for residential and industrial waste. From 1909 until it closed 48 years later, fires constantly erupted. The site was reopened for a year in 1965 to accommodate debris from Hurricane Betsy, up to 300 truckloads per day.

After that the dump was closed, burned, covered with a layer of the city’s incinerator ash and grinded into the earth.

When the homes were built, the foundations were poured onto land with elevated levels of lead, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic that can cause cancer, heart problems, reduced lung function and developmental problems in children, along with other health disorders.

City officials claimed to have no idea about the extent of the contamination. But after two class-action lawsuits were filed in 1993, and city workers were called to testify for a trial that finally began 12 years later, the depth of their knowledge was revealed.

Thousands of people said they were harmed.

Homeowners, cancer patients and children formed one class. Students, teachers and administrators at the Moton Elementary School — which the Orleans Parish School Board built even after consultants explicitly told them the land was dangerous — formed the other.

The classes were joined by Civil District Court Judge Nadine Ramsey. Ramsey did not buy that city officials were unaware of the contamination. In fact, city workers testified that the soil was tested, she wrote.

“As a result…the city required the developer of Gordon Plaza to add topsoil before constructing the homes,” wrote Ramsey. The judge ordered the city to turn over the findings. “The city has never produced a copy of the Gordon Plaza soil testing and has not explained why,” she wrote.

Before the school board started constructing a school on land it purchased in 1975, its members knew that testing revealed incurable chemical contamination.

At a meeting in 1985, environmental consultants hired by the board advised members “that the site may pose an unacceptable risk of exposure to … construction crews, schoolchildren and staff,” according to court records.

They recommended excavating three feet of soil at the site and replacing it with at least two feet of fresh topsoil. They also recommended installing a six-to-12-inch clay barrier to separate the topsoil and contaminated soil, and said testing should be routine.

During construction, the clay barrier was eliminated to cut costs. When 900 students entered Moton Elementary in 1986, they lacked that protection.

Wilma Subra, a technical adviser who has worked on numerous EPA Superfund committees, recalled a disturbing experience as she conducted environmental tests at the school.

“You could smell it and feel it,” Subra said of the toxins, “on your skin and feel it in your lungs.”

In her scathing judgment, Ramsey described the behavior of city officials as “shocking,” and said the school board’s actions were “particularly offensive and egregious because of its heightened duty in the realm of elementary schoolchildren.

The residents, “who are some of the most unrepresented in our society, put their trust in the defendants,” who “did nothing as evidence mounted that the former landfill was hazardous.”

Two months after the trial began, Ramsey ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $90 million in damages. Each person was to receive up to $50,000 for mental stress.

A core group of plaintiffs received up to $105,000 for the diminished value of their homes due to “the stigma associated with being located directly on top of a Superfund site,” court records said.

Viola Allen was awarded $140,000, and Nate Parker was granted $145,000. Another homeowner, Don Harrison Lewis Sr., was awarded $105,000 for lost property value. Diarra Ayodele McCormick, one of hundreds of Moton students, was awarded $40,000.

City officials appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which upheld most of the award. But as the city, housing authority and school board ignored the courts, disaster struck.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, drowning the Ninth Ward, including Gordon Plaza, in more than six feet of floodwaters. Residents scattered as far away as Australia.

While they were gone, the Press Park apartments and the senior center were demolished, leaving only Gordon Plaza. Homeowners hoped disaster insurance would end their ordeal, but insurers would not buy homes built on contaminated ground.

Ten years passed before Bagneris and her legal team forced the housing authority’s private insurers to pay a sliver of what it owed in 2015: $14.2 million.

Later that year, a New Orleans Times Picayune reporter interviewed Joan Virgil Davis as she opened her court settlement letter. Davis had played in the dirt at Press Park when she was a child. Over 20 years, she fought breast, brain, lung and rectal cancer.

“I watched her go from a woman who walked like a stallion to one who had to be pushed in a wheelchair,” Rainey said.

She unfolded the letter and looked at her reward: $4,843.15.

A year later, Davis died, according to her Boyd Family Funeral Home obituary. She was 59.

‘It’s death over there’

By the time Regan, the EPA administrator, stepped out of his black government SUV and took a seat in a circle of residents on Rainey’s front yard, Gordon Plaza’s residents had little faith in government.

But they patiently told their story — including the part about how the EPA misled them.

It started in 1986, when the EPA conducted soil tests at the former landfill. The results were not provided and residents were told the land was safe, court records said.

Later, after the federal toxic substance disease registry found elevated levels of lead and other chemicals, the EPA returned. A second round of tests in 1993 found that 149 toxic contaminants were dangerous.

A majority of residents asked to be relocated. But rather than pay an estimated $12 million for that, the EPA spent $20 million to remediate the soil, swapping a three-foot layer of contaminated dirt for clean dirt in just 10 percent of the development.

Adding to what residents considered an insult, the EPA told homeowners, senior citizens and schoolchildren that it was safe to go about their normal lives when contractors started digging and kicking up enormous clouds of dust.

The workers showed up wearing gas masks and hazmat suits.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Jesse Perkins said. “They were looking like astronauts.”

Outraged, Perkins was one of many homeowners who refused to let contractors touch his property, fearing the dust they created would sicken his family. He believes every level of government — federal, state and local — failed him.

That included Morial, the first Black mayor who rode into office on the votes of a new Black voting majority.

Years later, Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu, the sons of mayors who governed when the development was new, expressed sympathy for Gordon Plaza residents after becoming mayors themselves. Meanwhile, city lawyers fiercely fought the residents in court and refused to pay damages during their terms.

Mitch Landrieu, now the infrastructure czar for President Biden, did not respond to requests for comment. Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, a civil rights group, said the neighborhood was divided over the relocation effort.

“I’m saying that community leaders right back in the day said we don’t favor a buyout because we don’t want the neighborhood to be destroyed,” said Marc Morial, whose eight years in office ended in 2002.

The vast majority of residents supported relocation, Bagneris said. Morial eventually supported a relocation, she said, but only after the EPA informed him that the city would be responsible for the $20 million it cost to repair the soil.

Subra said the relocation effort was undermined by the city’s vigorous court fight and hostility toward the EPA. Residents came to share the hostility when the EPA chose to spend $20 million to remove soil, but not people.

Sitting in the sun with Regan, the second African American administrator in EPA history, they wondered what he could do.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress provided $3.5 billion to clean up Superfund sites, and the EPA is now considering another round of soil testing that could finally lead to a relocation.

Regan promised to consider the residents’ demand to be relocated, saying he would consult with Mayor LaToya Cantrell — one in a long line of Black mayors who have expressed sympathy for the residents while fighting them in court. Cantrell declined to comment.

The City Council recently voted to set aside $35 million in the capital budget for Gordon Plaza, but the money is not guaranteed.

For some people who lived in Gordon Plaza, any potential rescue is much too late. Parker Gavin, who moved to Mississippi years ago, said she will never go back.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “It’s death over there.”