Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

FEMA expected to rule on plan to build school on toxic soil

28th April 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

The public comment period ends April 30 as the Recovery School District (RSD) awaits final approval from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for their plan to remediate the toxic soil under the Booker T. Washington High School site.

“I think FEMA has no choice but to deny the application,” said Monique Harden, an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. Harden’s nonprofit law firm is representing the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association in a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ).

The lawsuit alleges that the RSD’s remediation plan violates state law, and presents a significant health risk to the people on and surrounding the site.

Regarding FEMA approval, Harden said that the remediation cost is ineligible for FEMA funding because the contamination has nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina. In addition, Harden said that the RSD’s plan doesn’t comply with state and federal environmental laws.

The contamination is primarily the result of the site being used as a city dump, known as Silver City Dump, until it was closed in 1930’s. The original Booker building was completed in 1942, and was demolished in 2012.

The BTW site is located at 1201 S. Roman Street, and is approximately four acres in size, bordered by Earhart Blvd. and Erato Street.

Environmental assessments have revealed that as much as 10 feet of soil beneath the site is contaminated with unacceptable levels of toxic heavy metals.

The RSD plan calls for the removal of three feet of toxic soil from most of the site, but not beneath existing cement and structures. A barrier would then be placed on top of the remaining toxic soil before adding clean fill material.

Potential health effects of exposure to the toxins range from respiratory issues to cancer.

Harden also notes that the assessments thus far have not been thorough enough to ensure that there aren’t even more toxins in the soil. No one has done a full assessment, she said.

According to FEMA spokeswoman Julie Bradford, the soil removal “will result in the generation of ‘solid waste,’ which will require disposal characterization under state solid and hazardous waste laws. Therefore, when site soils are excavated, they will need proper characterization and may result in being found ‘hazardous’, or not.”

Six of the eight toxic heavy metals found on the site (antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead, and mercury) are identified by the EPA as hazardous waste, Harden said.

Precisely how the removed soil will be handled will be identified in the final work plans developed by the RSD, Bradford indicated.

Another major concern is the toxins that will be released into the air during the removal.

“The RSD is trying to rush through without investing the time and money to make sure the plan is safe and effective,” Harden said.

Regarding the eligibility of using FEMA funds to remediate soil contaminated more than 80 years ago, Bradford wrote that: “FEMA will not obligate additional funds for remediation, but FEMA may approve RSD’s request to use FEMA Public Assistance funds authorized through the Alternate Project Single Settlement Request Project Worksheet 19166 to complete the work as part of the rebuilding of the new school.”

FEMA received that request from the RSD on April 15, Bradford said, and it is currently under FEMA Environmental and Historical Preservation review.

FEMA has already approved more than $80 million for the Booker project, including funding the selective demolition, the renovation of the existing auditorium and construction of new facilities, and the environmental studies.

The RSD estimated the cost of remediation at $3 to $4 million, but FEMA gave an estimate (which they said came from the RSD) of $1.1 million.

Though damaged in the storm, Booker was opened to students after Hurricane Katrina around 2007, and then closed in 2011.

Bradford said that while all Booker facilities were eligible for repair, the RSD elected to demolish everything except the auditorium and an adjoining hall.

Before Katrina hit, the school had closed for the 2004-2005 school year, and then reopened for the 2005-2006 school year to offer a vocational program.

Many of the public comments to FEMA thus far are basic statements in support of a new Booker T. Washington High School, and related to the school’s significant cultural and historical significance.

But Harden notes that the remediating the contaminated soil is unrelated to the construction of the school – regardless of any future use, it is the RSD’s obligation to lawfully and safely manage the contamination.

The students that the New Orleans Schools Facilities Master Plan calls for enrolling in the new Booker are already enrolled at Cohen College Prep.

James Raby, president of the Cohen Alumni Association, said he sees no reason to move the Cohen kids from the Uptown campus. The taxpayer dollars could be better spent renovating or rebuilding Cohen, instead of knowingly relocating Cohen kids to a toxic site, Raby said.

“No one working on this is saying that there shouldn’t be a school built for kids in need,” Harden said. “But the need isn’t there.”

By the RSD’s own projections, there are already more high school seats available in the city than there are students to fill them.

The kids are already in school, Harden said – at Cohen – on soil that is not rife with toxic heavy metals.

According to Bradford, the EPA doesn’t at this time mandate any activity on the site. However she said that other aspects may be applicable for EPA reviews or actions, such as proper management of polluted water under the Clean Water Act.

Harden said she hopes a denial from FEMA can act as a “wake up call” for the RSD “to get serious and do it right.”

Oral arguments in the Cohen Alumni Association’s lawsuit will be heard on September 15 in Baton Rouge.

This article originally published in the April 28, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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