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Spurred on by a desire to develop affordable housing to serve the needs of the rising Black middle class in the recently-desegregated New Orleans, the city secured federal funds in the late 1960s and 1970s to build residences on the former Agriculture Street Landfill site. The residents were unaware that their new homes were built on remnants of the primary dumpsites between 1909 and 1957 (the site was also reopened briefly after Hurricane Betsy in 1965). Instead, the Gordon Plaza subdivision in the Desire neighborhood was branded as a path for low and medium-income families to realize the American Dream of homeownership.
Completed in 1981, the Gordon Plaza community grew as folks established lives in their newly purchased homes near the site of a planned elementary school, senior center, and the promise of other amenities. Soon after moving in, the residents watched their dream disappear as toxic sludge and hazardous material started surfacing in their yards. Children attending the neighborhood Moton Elementary School began showing signs of lead poisoning and residents began to experience respiratory diseases, cancers, and eventually a number of deaths, all likely the result of exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Federal, state, and independent toxicology studies have found high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, dioxins, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), thallium, as well as over 140 other toxic substances including 49 known carcinogens in the soil and water surrounding the community. Additionally, due to its widespread use to protect residents from harmful insects, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was also detected throughout the site.
In 1994, in response to mounting pressure from the residents and local activists, the EPA determined that the former Agriculture Street Landfill site was polluted enough to warrant listing on the National Priorities List (NPL), qualifying the site for Superfund status and funding. Between 1997 and 2001, the EPA began a partial remediation, eventually cleaning up about ten percent of the site. However, large areas under and around existing homes were not remediated. In 2002, the EPA removed the site from the NPL designation, thereby effectively ending funding and additional remediation. When Hurricane Katrina hit the area in 2005 the flooding uplifted the existing protections, including the many geotextile barriers, and the floodwaters transported additional toxins throughout the neighborhood. After the water receded, Wilma Subra, a renowned environmental scientist, sampled the soil and determined that contamination by toxic chemicals was again widespread– eventually, her work forced the EPA to reinvestigate the site.