Toxic heavy metals found on the construction site of a planned $55 millionreplacement for the former Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans will require the removal of 3 feet of soil in areas that won\'t be covered by the new building\'s concrete foundation or parking lots, according to a report submitted on behalf of the Recovery School District to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The contaminants -- including antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc -- were found in levels greater than state and federal safety standards allow all across the South Roman Street site, according to an August report filed by CB&I Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., and a July report submitted by Leaaf Environmental LLC.
The Leaaf report concluded that "the concentrations of metals will need to be managed before the site can be used for a school."
The CB&I report recommended the excavation and removal of all concrete foundations except where two buildings at the site haven\'t been torn down, and the removal of the top 3 feet of soil, with the material disposed of in a landfill designed for nonhazardous solid waste. Geotextile fabric would then be placed across the excavated areas to keep deeper contaminated soil from migrating upward, and the area would be refilled with another 3 feet of soil before the new foundation is built, the report recommended.
When complete, about 57 percent of the site would be covered by structures, 29 percent by concrete or asphalt pavement, and the rest by green space. Use of the green space would be governed by a soil management plan to reduce potential future exposure to toxic metals.
The school, at 1201 S. Roman St., is adjacent to the new Harmony Oaks housing development, which formerly included the B.W. Cooper and Calliope public housing complexes.
The contaminants are believed to have come from the old "Silver City" waste dump, which was closed in the 1930s before Booker T. was completed in 1942. That dump was cited by Louis Armstrong in his 1954 autobiography, "SATCHMO: My life in New Orleans," in which he reminisced about scavenging food from garbage barrels there that he\'d try to sell to restaurants.
Armstrong wrote: "We thought we had cleaned out everything that could possibly be used from those garbage barrels at the produce houses, but when the garbage wagons arrived at the Silver City dump, a lot of poor colored people were waiting for them with pokers in their hands to pick out the good garbage from the bad."
The environmental report\'s recommendations have drawn objections from an attorney representing the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association, who warns that building the school on a dump could result in the same problems the Orleans Parish School Board ran into when it built Moton Elementary School atop the city\'s closed Agriculture Street Landfill in 1985 and then had to do major renovations to the site, including excavating soil from beneath the school foundation, when similar contaminants were identified.
In a letter Tuesday to DEQ Assistant Secretary Cheryl Nolan, attorney Monique Harden demanded that the agency withdraw its approval of the RSD-sponsored report and treat the construction site as a hazardous waste site.
"Given that public school students in New Orleans are predominantly African-American, the RSD report is also inconsistent with federal and state environmental justice policy as well as civil rights and human rights laws protecting the right to freedom from racial discrimination," Harden wrote. "Furthermore, current conditions at the RSD hazardous waste site pose significant risks for the predominantly African-American residents who live nearby, especially for children and the elderly who are particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of toxic exposure."
Harden said some residents live only 50 feet from the school, and said the report should have included a recommendation that more immediate action be taken to remove the contaminants.
She also objected to the plan to protect students by simply covering up much of the contamination, and said the report also should have addressed the threat to wildlife in Bayou St. John, almost two miles away, of the contaminants moving underground in groundwater.
"RSD takes the safety and health of our students and the community seriously," said Superintendant Patrick Dobard. "As per our normal protocol, we are working with CB&I & DEQ to ensure all of our sites meet all environmental standards."
But Tom Harris, director of DEQ\'s remediation and underground storage tank program, said the CB&I recommendations are adequate. "The RSD asked us, do we think this plan is protective of human health?" Harris said. "The only routes of exposure are dermal contact and ingestion, and if it\'s beneath a barrier, there will be no contact."
Harris said the RSD isn\'t responsible for contaminants from the old Silver City dump that may be elsewhere in the neighborhood. "I\'m certain the proposed project is not going to in any way make the rest of the old dump site any worse," he said. "In fact, it\'ll make it better because in the school\'s footprint, they will eliminate exposure."
Harris said that unlike the Agriculture Street Landfill, which continued to accept wastes until after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Silver City site was closed before the use of many modern chemicals.
"There\'s no indication in the historical records that it was ever anything more than a local dump site that hasn\'t received wastes in 80 years," he said. "From the data we saw, no organics were found, and there\'s only moderately elevated levels of metals. There a dump sites like this absolutely everywhere, all over the country."