Solution journalism: Environmental racism

It’s officially March, so we are marching into solutions. Yes, we’re aware of how lame that pun is! We also think it’s lame that a lot of journalism likes to describe everything that’s wrong with the world without showing data-driven examples of solutions that work! We don’t accept that, so this month we are marching (oof, there it is again) into solutions. We’ll be taking issues/problems from the Nola community and doing the research to find solutions that have proven to work! It’s solution journalism, and we’re continuing with the environment. 

Part 1: The Problem

Environmental agencies claim that simply living in a residence near a chemical plant is likely to put all individuals at risk of contamination and disease exposure (“Living Near an Industrial Plant or Refinery”). A research study conducted in South Africa has also shown that living atop an old landfill can also put individuals at a higher risk for diseases than those living in normal conditions (O. Njoku). Minority and low-income neighborhoods all over the country are disproportionately targeted when corporations are deciding where to place their waste sites or chemical plants (Erickson).

An environmental justice study at the University of Michigan and the University of Montana found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live” (Erickson). In choosing the location for a chemical plant, corporations often choose the areas with the least resources, which are often where people of color and poverty exist. Furthermore, these areas also typically have low political pull: a lack of powerful figures or leaders in a community result in little to no push-back against these powerful corporations.

Firms established in lower income areas produce much more toxic waste than those in wealthier areas; consequently, these same firms are also less likely to safely and efficiently manage the waste (Erickson). People in poverty are also more likely to experience these toxic chemicals in their workplaces due to the proximity of chemical plants and factories (Guildford). Louisiana has some of the most toxic air in the country, putting the cancer risk in areas around the state at 50x that of the national average. In fact, more industrial toxic air pollution in Louisiana is released than in any state in America (Shamlian).

One of the biggest issues surrounding constructing chemical plants in low-income areas is that the individuals living in these hazardous conditions often have no way of escaping. Those afflicted by poverty are unlikely to have the financial ability to move away or have the time to attest to the government on these conditions. This problem is extremely prevalent in Louisiana as a whole, but specifically in New Orleans. The minority community in the city is very at-risk:  a study done in 2010 revealed that an African American person in New Orleans was ten percent more likely to contract a respiratory disease and thirty percent more likely to die from cancer than a white person. This ratio was also higher in specifically New Orleans than in all of Louisiana and the U.S. (“New Orleans Health Department // A Public Health Agenda”).

The underlying theme behind all of this is environmental racism. This issue has been present in New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina. Based on discriminatory zoning practices, people of color were pushed into low elevated areas of the city. Then, when Katrina hit these communities – mostly low income, Black individuals – were impacted the hardest, as their homes were supported by weak and old levees which broke as the storm made landfall (“Environmental Racism in Louisiana”). The other areas of the city, which were predominantly white, sustained less damage as they were highly elevated and supported sufficiently.

Thus, minority neighborhoods in New Orleans and the greater New Orleans area are in undesirable environmental areas and are likely to be infiltrated by toxic waste or hazardous waste sites (Wright). One of the most jarring examples of this is Gordon Plaza, an affordable housing complex in the upper ninth ward. While it was well-intentioned in theory, the building was constructed atop a toxic landfill, which produced ​​the second-highest cancer rates in Louisiana. In this area, cancer rates immediately skyrocketed, with 745 cases per million people being observed, compared to the Louisiana state average of 489 (Zanolli).

What started out as a manifestation of the American dream for many of these first-time home-buyers, has slowly turned into a nightmare. Residents learned that their homes were built on an old agricultural landfill, but most had no way to escape the hazardous situation. The conditions were so bad at Gordon Plaza that it was designated by the EPA in 1994 as one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the United States (PARKER et al.). A Superfund site is defined as a polluted area in the country which contains hazardous materials and requires a long term clean up plan. As one could expect, clean up efforts were minimal – which is yet another demonstration of environmental racism. Infrastructural funding is poured into the wealthy, white communities in New Orleans, leaving ones like Gordon Plaza with few resources to use for projects such as these. At Gordon Plaza, the initial clean up efforts removed 70,000 tons of material and replaced it-  but only with a 2-foot layer of clean soil . An example of these minimal clean up efforts was a small geotextile mat placed under the two feet of soil to tell residents when to stop digging. Workers came in hazmat suits while handling the soil and breathing in the air of this community yet the residents were never moved (PARKER et al.).

This is not the only example of environmental racism within the New Orleans area. Cancer Alley, an industrial strip down the Mississippi river that leads from Baton Rouge all the way to New Orleans, is a place as daunting as its name implies. The residents of Cancer Alley are mainly Black poor individuals who are being continuously poisoned at their own homes by toxic waste from these plants (Addish). Fifty plus chemicals infiltrate this communities air quality which have caused a dramatic increase of cancer, illnesses, miscarriages and deaths surrounding these chemical plants (Addish).

Part II: The Solution

These marginalized communities ultimately need to be relocated to prevent the chronic cycle of illnesses from pollution and waste within the New Orleans area. Although picking up and moving an entire housing development is no easy task, it has been done before. In Kiruna, Sweden the entire town is currently on the move by the funding of LKA, a mining company in Sweden (Nickel). This town was sitting on top of one of the largest iron ore mines that was also in the process of sinking. To remedy the situation, the company has promised over a billion dollars to relocate the people of Kiruna with architects and urban planners. Some buildings are being dismantled and rebuilt while others are being lifted and driven to the new location. This project was revealed in 2013 and years of planning and mapping had to take place before the relocation could occur. Currently homes are being built for residents and buildings are being relocated and the project is aimed to be completed in 2035.  Instead of just picking up people and relocating them with no say, the city has talked to residents and gotten their opinions on what makes home feel like home to them and what is important during this move (Ravenscroft). The residents or Kiruna are able to have a new home which is planned strategically by urban planners that foster a better quality of life by neighborhood planning and green areas. These residents are also being saved from potential damage to their homes and lives by the mine potentially collapsing. Although the main goal is to save the town, many residents are used to hearing explosions and their homes shaking due to mining underneath and the relocation will allow residents not to be worried about a possible explosion impacting their home (“Kiruna residents talk about life in a town on the move”). Kiruna has been moving building by building and some buildings had to be transported while other neighborhoods for residents had to be established and planned. For example the church in the town is being dismantled piece by piece and being rebuilt (“Kiruna residents talk life in a town on the move”). Clean air, clean water, sanitation and green spaces produce reduced mortality rates and increase individuals’ quality of life and mental health (“Healthy Environment, Healthy People”).

An example of such an effort in the United States occurred in 1999 in Louisville, Kentucky. In this occurrence, an entire town was moved in response to an airport being built in the city. The airport spent 10 million dollars relocating the town to a neighboring area, and residents were able to sell their home and move into this new establishment. Both the Louisville airport case and the Kiruna case provide a fantastic model for future environmental intervention, especially with rising sea levels and climate change happening at alarming rates. Although moving a city has been shown to work, it does take time and many of the residents facing hazardous conditions do not have time to spare as they are constantly being exposed to harmful chemicals.

The National Cancer Institute states that people who live in communities that lack clean water or air may be exposed to cancer-causing substances. They also concluded that people with low incomes, long travel distances to screening sites, or who lack health insurance, transportation to a medical facility, or paid medical leave are less likely to have recommended cancer screening tests and to be treated according to guidelines than those who don’t encounter these obstacles (“Cancer Disparities”).The research from NCI shows that individuals who live in neighborhoods that lack affordable healthy foods or safe areas for exercise are more likely to contract risk factors for cancer.

Relocating neighborhoods that are being harmed from hazardous waste is the only viable solution for the New Orleans community. These homes are infested with harmful chemicals and cannot be lived in; this dire situation must be hastily remedied – these communities need to be immediately moved away from their harmful lifestyle. As seen before, New Orleans has attempted some clean up efforts, but this “solution” is not permanent nor sustainable, and the execution of past clean ups has frankly been quite disappointing.

Part III: Implementation

New Orleans is a crowded city: making a whole new housing development could be near impossible due to the tremendous infrastructure of the city. That being said, there are many abandoned buildings scattered throughout the greater New Orleans area that could potentially house thousands of people. Most of these buildings have been vacant since Hurricane Katrina, but are uninhabitable at their current state. For example Lindy Boggs Medical Center which was abandoned and could be funded to renovate since its purpose was to help the health of New Orleans residents (“The Ghosts of Lindy Boggs Medical Center”). With proper funding and renovations they could be remodeled into affordable, safe housing for communities victimized by hazardous pollution. The government and companies responsible for the toxic waste and air pollution in New Orleans can pay to renovate and rebuild these into homes for people suffering severe health issues within their current residential areas. This project would require roughly over a billion dollars as speculated compared to other projects of this size. Doing so could preserve years on many of these discriminated groups’ lives and slow the death rate of marginalized individuals in the future.

One difficulty during this process would be the acquisition of these abandoned buildings currently standing in New Orleans. These buildings do have owners and have been sitting empty since Hurricane Katrina. They will require severe construction and restoration to provide  habitable to a whole community (Mackel). Plaza Towers, a huge abandoned building in downtown New Orleans, has decreased in selling price by millions of dollars throughout the years as its condition has worsened. This decrease in selling price would allow the city to buy the land and provide restoration to brighten and bring light to the first tower in New Orleans and solve Gordon Plaza’s toxic environment by moving all of the housing here. This project would benefit the city of New Orleans by bringing in more residents, restoring abandoned buildings and saving people’s lives from deadly chemicals that are currently leaking into their homes and air.

As aforementioned, time is of the essence in this situation: the New Orleans residents affected by these environmental hazards do not have much time. From a structural standpoint, taking over these abandoned buildings would take the most time, as purchasing, negotiating, and remodeling these places so they are safe for inhabitants is a big undertaking. There are hundreds of empty buildings in New Orleans, so the sooner this process begins the better.

Throughout this proposed solution, it is essential to prioritize the needs of the residents. As seen in the Kiruna move, the company responsible for relocating the residents emphasized the personal preferences of the community and took their desires into account when implementing the re-location. For the Black community of New Orleans, a group that has been repeatedly ignored and marginalized by society as a whole, acknowledging their needs and wants should be the top priority. Furthermore, in both of the relocations previously discussed, there was initial resistance from the residents to move from their homes. This is understandable: leaving one’s home and the memories made there can be absolutely heartbreaking. Thus, another aspect of the Kiruna move must be implemented in this New Orleans intervention. In Kiruna, the residents were interviewed individually to derive their needs and feelings about the process. If done in New Orleans, this would help preserve the community history and values during the move. A relocation without consulting the citizens of the community would cause even more distress than living in a toxic environment. These residents need to feel like their opinions are being heard and valued and they aren’t just going to be put up in another bad living condition.Moving Gordon Plaza to a new location would allow for a closer proximity to the city center which gives more accessibility to clean air, doctors offices and food (“Cancer Disparities”).


Works Cited

Addish, Sumaya. “1) Cancer Alley, Louisiana (1987- ) •.” Blackpast, 1 July 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

“Cancer Disparities.” National Cancer Institute, 17 November 2020, Accessed 12 December 2021.

“Environmental Racism in Louisiana.” Mothers & Others for Clean Air, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Erickson, Jim. “Targeting minority, low-income neighborhoods for hazardous waste sites.” University of Michigan News, 19 January 2016, Accessed 12 December 2021.

“The Ghosts of Lindy Boggs Medical Center.” Nola Ghosts, Accessed 19 December 2021.

Guildford, Anna. “Why is poverty linked with exposure to toxic chemicals?” Medical News Today, 12 August 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

“Healthy Environment, Healthy People.” UN Environment Programme, 19 May 2016, Accessed 19 December 2021.

“Kiruna residents talk life in a town on the move.” The Local Sweden, 11 August 2014, Accessed 22 December 2021.

“Living Near an Industrial Plant or Refinery.” Arnold & Itkin LLP, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Mackel, Travers. “WDSU Investigates: Why Plaza Tower isn’t developed.” WDSU, 20 May 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Nickel, David. “Kiruna: A Mining Town On The Move In Northern Sweden.” Forbes, 2021, Accessed 12 12 2021.

“Nw Orleans Health Department // A Public Health Agenda.” City of New Orleans, Accessed 12 December 2021.

  1. Njoku, Prince. “Health and Environmental Risks of Residents Living Close to a Landfill: A Case Study of Thohoyandou Landfill, Limpopo Province, South Africa.” NCBI, 15 June 2019, Accessed 12 December 2021.

PARKER, HALLE, et al. “LaToya Cantrell wants to move Gordon Plaza residents off toxic landfill; where’s the money?”, 21 November 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

PARKER, HALLE, et al. “LaToya Cantrell wants to move Gordon Plaza residents off toxic landfill; where’s the money?”, 21 November 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Ravenscroft, Tom. “Biggest challenge of relocating Swedish town Kiruna is “moving the minds of citizens.”” Dezeen, 18 February 2019, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Shamlian, Janet. “High cancer risk plagues Louisiana town near chemical plants.” CBS News, 24 July 2019, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Wright, Ada. “Public Housing and Hazardous Waste in New Orleans.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, 26 April 2021, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Zanolli, Lauren. “’We’re just waiting to die’: the black residents living on top of a toxic landfill site.” The Guardian, 11 December 2019, Accessed 12 December 2021.



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