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Recovery School District
The original Booker T. Washington high school, built in 1940, on top of the Great Depression-era Silver City Dump. Hurricane Katrina devastated original structure. Now several groups are concerned about rebuilding on the site. Credit: Marta Jewson

Neon-clad construction workers stood out against a drab graveyard of twisted rebar and toppled concrete pillars on the site of New Orleans’ Booker T. Washington High School in Central City recently.

Community members have decried the situation at the campus, but the mangled debris isn’t why — it’s the polluted soil below.

Part of the city’s ambitious $1.8 billion plan to replace and renovate schools damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the school is set to replace the original Washington high built at the site in 1940 — on top of the Great Depression-era Silver City Dump. Adjacent to the B.W. Cooper public housing complex, Washington remained a neighborhood fixture until the storm, offering vocational certificates.

“In New Orleans, we have a real track record of building schools and homes, especially for African-Americans, on former waste dumps,” said attorney Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

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Harden represents an environmental group and one alumni association who say they are prepared to sue New Orleans’ two school districts based on their plans to build at the site where, among other things, lead levels are 24 times the residential-use standard.

“In New Orleans, we have a real track record of building schools and homes, especially for African-Americans, on former waste dumps.”

They say the state-run Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board are violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and “have failed to make a lawful determination as to whether your waste is hazardous…”

They are also worried the remediation plan — to remove 3 feet of soil, install a geotextile barrier and then fill to grade — will fail to protect people over time.

The construction plan puts two schools’ alumni groups at odds with each other.

Washington alumni generally support the rebuilding of their alma mater, so long as the remediation ensures the site is safe. However, alumni from Walter L. Cohen High School, the school slated to move into the Washington building, are more skeptical. They speculate this is all part of a plan to eventually sell the current Cohen building, located on more valuable property in the Uptown neighborhood.

Related: Did Obama come through for New Orleans schools after Katrina?

Cohen Alumni Association President Jim Raby said initially, his group was concerned with the district’s plans to build a large high school at the Washington site. Raby, a 1955 Cohen graduate, said research shows African-American students perform better in smaller school settings.

But they soon found about the Washington site’s dirty history and the fight quickly became not just about Cohen students, but all students.

“We still are opposed to a large school,” he said. “But more so now, we are opposed to any school being built on that site.”

Remnants raise questions

Earlier this month, the Sierra Club and Cohen Alumni Association filed a notice of intent to sue with the Orleans Parish School Board and the state-run Recovery School District. Both are involved in school rebuilding citywide.

The document details multiple detectable toxins on site. Harden’s organization, along with the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, is representing both groups.

“There are about a dozen categories of toxins that exist,” Harden said. “And they’ve only tested for two.”

In those two categories — toxic heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — lead, mercury, arsenic and nine other elements were found in concentrations ranging from double what the state allows for residential use to 24 times the allowable level.

Harden and Raby say want to prevent history from repeating.

The city knowingly built the school and housing on the dump without remediation in the 1930s and ‘40s. Maybe they could claim ignorance of the toxins’ effects then, Harden said, but today they are well known.

Some states have laws that prevent schools from being built on known waste sites, Harden said.

Related: Katrina might as well have happened a day ago if you’re young, poor and black in New Orleans

But the Louisiana Legislature this year rejected a bill to ban the construction of new schools on land formerly used for sewage sludge, hazardous waste or toxic waste.

In 1987, the School Board opened Moton Elementary School alongside a public housing development atop the Agriculture Street dump. The school was shut down just seven years later because the EPA found over 140 toxic chemicals there.

It was declared a Superfund site and the Housing Authority of New Orleans and School Board were found liable for property damage and emotional distress.

No such designation has been put on the Washington site.

Who’s planning and who’s responsible

Both the Washington and Cohen sites are owned by the School Board but controlled by the RSD, which is why they both received the lawsuit notice. When the School Board lost control of the majority of its schools in 2005, it also lost control of the buildings.

So why does the district want to move Cohen’s student body to Washington?

They’re not giving any reason, Harden said.

“The RSD has not publicly disclosed the rationale for its decision to close the Walter L. Cohen School building.” the notice reads.

RSD Deputy Chief of Staff Laura Hawkins said the district is following a remediation plan that was approved by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and FEMA.

“The RSD takes the health and safety of our students and school communities seriously, and we are confident that all precautions are being taken to build a school that is a safe learning environment for students,” she said.

Harden is even further confused when reviewing district records that listed Cohen in fair condition after the storm, the only such school slated for landbanking, she said.

But beyond how the district came to the decision, she still wonders how they can justify putting children n a toxic site.

“The primary concern is that this is part of a city waste dump that was never cleaned up prior to the building of the school,” she said.

And the issues that were present in 1940 persist today.

“You are relying on the six feet of clean soil that will forever protect you from the contaminated soil,” Harden said. “The problem with that, in concept, is the barrier will fail over time.”

Subsidence, a constant costly problem for New Orleans, threats of cracking concrete and heavy rain and flooding are also cause for concern.

“This whole thing is being directed with greed, without any regard for health, safety of school children, people who live nearby or the workers,” Harden said.

Raby shares those concerns and he told The Lens Friday he will be meeting with RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard and state Representative Walt Leger III on Sept. 2.

“I certainly hope we can discuss an alternate site,” he said.

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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