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Feds asked to block RSD from building new school on toxic landfill

30th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

The Louisiana Weekly Staff Report

Environmental scientist Wilma Subra released findings of toxic contamination at the proposed site of Cohen College Prep High (formerly Walter L. Cohen High School) during a townhall meeting held Thursday, June 26, at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 2805 General Taylor Street.

Cohen’s new site is slated to be constructed at the site of the former Booker T. Washington High School, which is bound by South Roman, South Broad, Earhart and Erato streets.

The point of contention among those opposed to the building of Cohen at the BTW site is that the BTW site sits atop the former Silver City Dump and has contaminants that pose threats to potential construction workers, remediation workers, students and staff as well as residents in living in the surrounding area.

According to Subra’s findings, soil contamination at the site begins at the surface level and extends 15 feet into the soil. Further findings from as early as March 2012 revealed:

• Soil contamination that included levels of toxic heavy metals

• Unacceptable levels of lead at every contamination sample

• Unacceptable levels of antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc and mercury 8 to 10ft. in the soil

According to the report, some of the levels of concentration for the various metals present at the site are:

• Lead levels at 24 times the standard; present at 15 of 16 sample sites

• Antimony levels at 21 times the standard; present at 14 of 16 sample sites

• Copper levels at 7.9 times the standard; present at 11 of 16 sample sites

• Cadmium levels at 3.7 times the standard; present at 8 of 16 sample sites

• Arsenic levels at 3 times the standard; present at 10 of 16 sample sites

• Mercury levels at 2.9 times the standard; present at 12 of 16 sample sites

• Barium levels at 2.4 time the standard; present at 10 of 16 sample sites

• Zinc levels at 2.1 times the standard; present at 7 of 16 sample sites

Subra stated that Recovery School District (RSD), which oversees Cohen has an insufficient corrective action plan that plans to remove only 3ft. of the contaminated soil, does not address ground water issues and lacks remedies for exposing additional pathways, which may arise as a result of demolition, removal and installation of new utilities, construction, occupancy and other areas.

The health risks associated with the contamination include, but are not limited to, dizziness, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs, cancer of the skin, lungs or prostrate, mercury poisoning, vomiting and nausea and a series of other health conditions, according to the report.

Dana Peterson, a representative for the RSD, said that the district’s mission is to build 21st-century schools that are safe for students.

“We have nothing to gain by putting our students or families in harm’s way,” said Peterson, who noted that the decision to build Cohen at the proposed site was made in accordance with the 2007 school facilities master plan authored by RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board.

Peterson said the master plan took into consideration the population of students that were in New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina, which was significantly less than pre-storm figures, and was also drafted prior to the revelation of contamination.

“We want to listen. We want to be responsive. We are not hard- headed,” Peterson said.

Cohen alumnus Leroy Jones attended the townhall meeting and said he was pleased with what he heard. Although, he believes that RSD’s plan to construct at Washington is not an economically wise decision.

“I think the RSD is not using common sense. It makes more sense to build on the clean site,” he said.

James Raby, president of the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association, stated that the value of the current Cohen property is about $2 million whereas the value of the Washington property was roughly $700,000 prior to the revelation of contamination. He noted that the association is not against building a Booker T. Washington school, but staunchly opposes building at a contaminated site.

Gen. Russel Honoré and the Green Army are working with the alumni association, and Honoré said he has contacted FEMA, HUD and the EPA for intervention.

“All said they’re standing by to see how they can get this turned around because there’s federal law that says you can’t do this,” Honore said.

It was also stated during the meeting that federal FEMA funds assigned to the project are on hold, as the funds were designated for Hurricane Katrina-related construction; however, the soil contamination pre-dates the storm.

Earlier this year, Cohen’s alumni association filed a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality to prevent the RSD from moving forward.

This article originally published in the June 30, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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