Environmental Justice for Gordon Plaza | Systematic Failure to Protect Health

Washington (GGM) Analysis | June 7, 2021 by author and climate journalist Noreen Wise

Gordon Plaza is a subdivision in the New Orlean’s Desire neighborhood that was developed on the ASL hazardous waste site in the early 1980’s. The first residents, excited about securing their little piece of the pie, moved into their new homes in 1981, 40 years ago. Most of the houses are modest ranches with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, on 5,000 square ft lots. The properties were federally funded and intentionally marketed as affordable housing to low income wage earners seeking an opportunity to move on up. 

Black American public culture in 1981 was framed in part by the award winning sitcom, The Jeffersons, which aired each week on CBS from 1975 – 1985. Moving on Up was the upbeat theme song: “Movin’ on up, To the east side. We finally got a piece of the pie… Took a whole lot of tryin’, Just to get up that hill. Now we’re up in the big leagues, Gettin’ our turn at bat.” The song writers are Jeff Barry and Ja’net Dubois. It seems highly probable that there were many subdivision developers and realtors across the country who were selling to black communities and linking their sales pitches to this inspirational sentiment in the hopes of motivating potential black buyers to take the plunge. Interestingly, 1981 was the year that Isabel Sanford was the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Louise “Weezy” in The Jeffersons.  

This tidy grid of streets in New Orlean’s 9th Ward, was federally funded through HUD as well as the Community Development Block Grant Program. Back in 1981, when potential buyers were shopping around, they were apparently kept in the dark about the former hazardous waste dump. They’ve pointed out often that they felt they were duped into buying homes in Gordon Plaza. 

The history of Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL) makes this shameful failure to inform all the more egregious. The area had been plagued with spontaneous combustion during the 1950’s when the dangerous toxins would regularly mix beneath the surface. Drivers back then would have to slow to a crawl, inching along at 10 miles per hour, guided by the police, on days when the air became so thick with toxic smoke that visibility was impaired. New Orleans Historical website notes that back in the day, this location used to be referred to as Dante’s Inferno. 

Gordon Plaza was designated a Superfund cleanup site in 1994. 

The Gordon Plaza residents’ hellacious plight drew international attention in December of 2019 when The Guardian featured the subdivision in its series Cancer Town. This was following the 2019 Louisiana Tumor Registry listing Gordon Plaza as having the second highest cancer rate in Louisiana.

Heart of the matter. After decades of fighting for fully funded relocation, and winning several class action lawsuits against city agencies and insurance companies, as described in The Guardian piece, residents have yet to be paid any money from the lawsuits, or to be relocated to safe grounds. Protesting regularly, Gordon Plaza residents showcase a remarkable amount of grit and determination in their quest to receive what they deserve, and are asking for.

Climate and environmental injustice is only going to get worse. It’s very important to amplify the life-threatening situations homeowners are facing in vulnerable locations as the heat and the water rises. City, state and federal agencies are failing to protect human life and adequately respond.

Shockingly, the mistreatment of the Gordon Plaza residents is pretty consistent across the United States for low income minority communities. At a recent Senate Subcommittee hearing on Public Works and Environmental Justice, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) pointed out that “Seventy percent of the nation’s most environmentally contaminated sites are located within just one mile of federal assisted housing.” This stark reality shows a system of abuse and environmental injustice towards minority low income wage earners, and is very effective in explaining why the dire situation at Gordon Plaza has been ignored. No governmental agency, or city leader should be holding a blind eye to the shocking injustice.

In a request of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell for comment, a City Hall spokesperson responded: “The City is exploring the feasibility of returning the Agriculture St. Landfill Superfund site to a productive use. As part of that process, the Cantrell Administration, unlike any previous administration, has reached out to Gordon Plaza residents to gauge their interest in redeveloping the site. The responses we’ve received have confirmed that while some residents adamantly favor a relocation and then redevelopment of the site, other residents want to stay in the neighborhood they call home. This is a complicated issue, and the City is working towards an amicable solution that will satisfy all of the interests of the residents.”

A recent article written by staff writer Halle Parker for nola.com outlined that there are 54 families seeking fully funded relocation. The conflict revolves around what the city thinks is a fair market value and what residents feel is the fair market value. Halle Parker featured a comment by Gordon Plaza resident Leona Floyd in her March 15, 2021 article:

“We are rightfully due the full compensation for our house, not a devalued amount as a result of the city of New Orleans building our homes on toxic soil. We know that fair market value will not be fair to us, and we should not go into debt moving out of a situation that was presented to us as part of the American Dream.”

A quick online search, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, shows what appears to be a gap of approximately $70,000. It looks like a home in the area that is not on toxic land is valued at approximately $85,000, but a comp home is only worth $15,00 if the property is on the extremely dangerous superfund site. If this is the heart of the matter, then it’s clear why the issue hasn’t been resolved. Is there anyone who would settle for this microscopic amount after being misled from the start four decades earlier, which resulted in a cascade of endless heartache and suffering? No weekly television series is ever produced about this “piece of the pie.” But if we all collectively amplify the Gordon Plaza SOS message each week, it will hopefully net a positive outcome for these traumatized residents who are on the front lines of environmental and climate inequities in the United States.

The Gordon Plaza residents certainly deserve the Outstanding Fighters award.

Next Step

New Orleans is on the front lines of the climate crisis, with regular flooding, high heat, and endless hurricanes. In fact, the sate of Louisiana loses 25-35 miles of coastline per year from rising water levels. Additionally, there is the increased hazard of the wet bulb temperature that will potentially increase toxicity levels on the chemicals stuffed beneath the surface of Gordon Plaza. Ten years ago, back in June of 2011, the EPA became worried about it’s inability to protect human health and the environment in the age of climate change. The EPA asked states to draft Climate Change Adaptation Plans. Louisiana was one of only 14 states that did not comply and thus Louisiana has no Climate Change Adaptation Plan. Yet Louisiana is on the front lines of climate change with a large number of citizens living in environmental justice communities with climate taking a direct toll their health.

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