Editor’s note: Tulane environmental studies and public health major Gabriella Burns recently visited three New Orleans hazardous waste sites with Wilma Subra, owner of environmental consulting company Subra Inc. and a MacArthur Genius Award winner for her work in environmental justice issues along Cancer Alley. This is the third of a three-part series on what she found.
Construction on the new Booker T. Washington High School began in 2016, despite efforts from Wilma Subra to stop it. Subra, an environmental expert, believed that the site was not the type of place where you’d want to send your kids to school. It sits on top of the old Silver City Landfill, which Subra says never received sufficient remediation to prevent residents, construction workers, or future students from exposure to polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic, lead, and other dangerous chemicals.
Hurricane Katrina severely damaged Booker T. Washington High School, making it unusable after the storm. The destruction also uncovered details about the toxicity of the site, according to Subra. “They had a basement, they had a concrete wall. And then they had the gym. And under that was just tons of waste clearly identified as waste from the Silver Street landfill. And most of that was left there.”
In 2014, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) executed a plan to remediate the site, but Subra doesn’t think it was sufficient.
“What DEQ was required to remediate and remove from the site was a very small amount, leaving a lot of waste left on site when they started construction.” The LDEQ removed 3 feet of soil and replaced it with 6 feet of clean soil, but the chemical contamination was found 15 feet below the surface.
This begs the question: Why is the school still being built on this contaminated site?
According to Subra, “It’s a lot of politics.”
“A state representative from New Orleans actually filed a bill in the legislature saying that you could not build a school on top of an old dump. It went through the House and passed unanimously.” Subra is referencing when State Rep. Joe Bouie introduced a bill to ban building schools on former dump sites. Critics, which included Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and the district’s remediation company, said the bill was too broad and it eventually failed.
“When it got to the Senate, an individual that was high up in the LDEQ came and testified after we had testified about all the information that was going on at the site,” Subra said. “He just dismissed us and said FEMA would never let us build something on top of a waste site. But FEMA had already let them reconstruct all this housing on top of the waste site. So that was not a true statement. But he convinced the senators and not one of the senators would make a motion to pass it out of the Senate.”
So, the school is under construction now, despite Subra’s protests.
“There was a lot of vacant property in this general area where they could have formed a new school and named it Booker T., but the Alumni Association insisted it be on the site of Booker. It’s a lot of people with devotion to their school, which is very good. But not to a school on top of a waste dump.”
Subra is very concerned about the potential impacts of the site on students and teachers who will spend a significant amount of their time at the site.
“Every time I come and walk in this building, I get respiratory problems. That’s short-term exposure; a teacher who spends her whole career here could serve for 20, 25 or 30 years, and be exposed to everything that’s still left in the ground, and will vaporize up and potentially could move up when we have another flood, it could dissolve some of that material and bring it to the surface here.”
That leaves Subra with some important questions: “Would you allow your child to go to a school that’s built on top of a dump? Would you allow it if you didn’t know? And how would you know?” Schools are places of education, so what about educating the public on what they are exposing their children to when they walk through the door. This is the knowledge that lies below the ground and needs to rise up.
Gabriella Burns’ articles are derived from a service learning project in Dr. Christopher Oliver’s course EVST 4410 Senior Seminar in Environmental Studies at Tulane University. This work is also part of a long-term project facilitated by the Critical Visualization Media Lab (CVML), led by Dr. Oliver. Dr. Oliver is Professor of Practice in the Department of Sociology and Environmental Studies Program. He is also Jill H. and Avram A. Glazer Professor of Social Entrepreneurship through the Phillis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking and a faculty fellow in the Mellon Graduate Program in Community Engaged Scholarship.