The American Dream Denied

Q&A with Christopher Oliver, PhD

Interviewed by Laura Blereau,
Curator and Coordinator of Academic Programming   at the Newcomb Art Museum

Laura Blereau (LB): The New Orleans neighborhood of Gordon Plaza is only 9 miles from Tulane’s campus, yet many people in our city are unaware of the crisis in this location and its history. Why do you think that is?

Christopher Oliver (CO): Gordon Plaza and Agriculture Street Landfill is unknown to most New Orleanians. There are a number of reasons for this. First, our news cycle is saturated with other current local and national events which results in a pretty short half-life of the few media reports there have been about Gordon Plaza. Second, living in Louisiana means that even for those us invested in understanding environmental issues, there are so many issues in so many places to consider. Cancer Alley remains a bit more on the forefront of the media, and in some ways, rightly so given the extensive pollution, devasting effects of the massive and growing petrochemical industrial infrastructure, and the appalling level of illnesses and deaths directly attributable to these industries. However, here in New Orleans we need to be aware that we have a number of equally appalling sites of environmental injustice right within our parish boundaries. Injustices – in the form of the slow violence of environmental racism and inequality – is devastating regardless of the scale and scope of the issue. One dead child, sister, mother, husband or wife, caused by the unnecessary exposure to a toxic site under one’s home is one death too many. 

Third, the issue of climate change tends to dominate much of the media discussion, nationally and in Louisiana and, again, rightly so. But, as those of us working in the field of environmental justice know – and have documented extensively – climate change will not affect all people equally. The same communities – typically communities of color and more often than not working-class poor neighborhoods – will be the ones who disproportionately suffer the consequences of sea level rise, high intensity storms, floods, drought, fires, etc., not to mention that toxic consequences of all of these events. Consequently, one expressed purpose of the Gordon Plaza exhibition is to introduce the concepts of environmental justice and environmental racism to a wider audience, while also highlighting these issues with our very own city. At some level the existence of Gordon Plaza should not be a surprise to folks -- but nevertheless I imagine it will be for many visitors. 

LB: In 1994 the EPA designated the Agriculture Street Landfill as a Superfund site on the National Priorities List. It was delisted in 2002 following remediation, however people are still living there and having problems. If we compare the outcomes of this remediation process with the situation in Niagara Falls, New York at the Superfund site Love Canal (which was designated in 1984, and delisted in 2004) what were key differences? As I understand it, most of the families in Niagara Falls were relocated, however in New Orleans they were not.

CO: One significant distinction between Love Canal and Gordon Plaza is that the pollution at Love Canal was the responsibility of a private company, the Hooker Chemical Company, whereas the pollution at Gordon Plaza is a consequence of a municipal landfill created and managed by the city of New Orleans. Consequently, in the case of Love Canal the city of Niagara, and eventually the state of New York, had a responsible party – in this case one with deep financial pockets since the Hooker Chemical Co. was a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, a multinational energy conglomerate with billions in assets and annual revenue in the hundreds of millions in the 1970s. This created a clear target for the state attorney’s general office as well as local municipalities to pursue for the costs of cleanup and remediation, and eventual relocation of the neighborhood. Further, Love Canal, the first “big” environmental justice case in the US, happened during 1970s during the rise in the environmental consciousness of both governments and the general public, making it an important, media salient issue that garnered national attention.

Lastly, the Love Canal issue was brought to the attention of the media and public by “housewives and mothers” to quote media reports of the time – including Lois Gibbs and Love Canal Parents Movement. Part of this effort included these parents “detaining” a public official in protest for the lack of response by politicians and other government agencies. So, one clear circumstance related to this effort, when compared to the thousands of similar situations that followed over the next fifty years such as Gordon Plaza, is the issue of the race of the affected residents. If a group of Black community members took a public official hostage to press their case, the consequences would have been significantly different that those experiences by the white residents at Love Canal.

LB: When Gordon Plaza was originally built, what were the short-term gains for our city and why did that outweigh the civic responsibility of treating hazardous waste?

CO: In the 1950s and 1960s – when the foundations for the Gordon Plaza Development were being considered through the various federal programs to alleviate poverty by providing affordable housing and increased opportunities for low income urban residents to purchase homes by using federal funds to subsidize the costs of construction and mitigating financial risks through federally-backed mortgages – the regulations regarding existing, and especially former, landfills and hazardous waste were minimal, especially in the South. 

Until the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1970, which established the US EPA, there was little federal oversight or enforcement of existing landfill statutes including disposal techniques for waste[1]. The explicit regulation of hazardous waste was not fully addressed until the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976, thereby providing a national framework and mechanism for regulating, monitoring and enforcing laws regarding the types, treatment, and disposal of specific forms of solid and hazardous waste.

Still, since Gordon Plaza was built after the passing of the Solid Waste Disposal Act, NEPA, and RCRA, one would assume that the city of New Orleans and the federal and state governments would have been required to address the issue of trash buried underneath new housing development (and one funded by the federal government and built by the city). However, it wasn’t required to do so for one reason: Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL) had been closed since 1958[2] and therefore not subject to the subsequent environmental legislation enacted after the closing of the landfill. So, while there are existing statues regarding how the city must monitor the site, the process for engineering the site in anticipation of building residential developments on top of the former landfill were significantly different than would be expected today. But it should be noted that city, as well as the state and federal government, bears specific responsibility for protecting their residents from the potential – and in this case, existing harm – experienced by community members living on a known toxic landscape like Agriculture Street Landfill and Gordon Plaza.

LB: Children suffering from lead poisoning played a key role in exposing the unsafe conditions at Moton Elementary School in the early 1990s which finally got the attention of the EPA. Decades passed and today we still have over 50 families living in Gordon Plaza, some of them with young kids. What needs to be known about the current health risks of people remaining in homes atop the former Agriculture Street Landfill?

CO: The US EPA have sampled various locations within the ASL site (and, therefore, also Gordon Plaza neighborhood) every five years, as required by law as part of the monitoring of all Superfund sites. Each of the five-year reviews over the past twenty-plus years indicate credible amounts of soil pollution, including sampled levels beyond established federal and state minimum thresholds (“safe” levels) for lead, arsenic, and a number of benzene-based polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), all of which are known carcinogens. However, there have been conflicting interpretations of both the level and location of contamination, with the EPA asserting that barriers erected as part of the Superfund program remediation process have sufficiently limited exposure issues within the legal guidelines. On the other hand, Wilma Subra, an independent environmental scientist, has completed her own technical work of the site, concluding that the site contains dangerous contaminants, in much higher levels than previously reported and, most significantly, the integrity of the EPA barriers are inadequate to protect the residents living on the site. 

Further, recent data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry indicate that cancer rates for the Gordon Plaza census tract is the second highest overall rate of cancer in the state. Unfortunately, there has been no official health survey documenting the myriad of other diseases and illnesses that would be expected with the level of exposures and the types of contaminants sampled on the site. And based on the experiences and reports of the residents – including the illnesses and deaths of the residents’ family members and friends – there is clear evidence of illness rates in line with the official cancer rates provided by the tumor registry data.

LB: Thank you for steering this important research. It’s incredible how quickly this exhibition came together, particularly as a community-engaged project. I’d like to commend your research team in the Critical Visualization and Media Lab (CVML) especially because all of the students worked so tirelessly over the Summer. They interviewed and collaborated with multiple local residents of the Gordon Plaza neighborhood and, in the process, they have lifted voices that tragically illuminate a new perspective on living with environmental pollution. How has this research been steered critically?

CO: Thank you for those thoughts. I’m also equally impressed with the work of our CVML staff. While we’ve been having strategic planning meetings for about a year or so, we only first met as a staff this May. Most of our staff were not familiar with the museum project, Gordon Plaza, or CVML going into the summer - and we didn’t really have a staff until I was able secure funds to hire some for summer as well as the others who joined as interns. But in the end, we were able to bring together nine undergraduate students, four graduate students, and one colleague from Tulane’s environmental studies program as staff for the summer. Each of the undergraduate students had specific skills and interests, but generally much of our work was built from the ground up. 

Generally, the approach of CVML is to provide a combination of: skill development for our staff in various areas of environmental justice analysis and advocacy, community engagement experience through capacity building, logistical and technical support to environmental justice communities, and a critical understanding of the interlinkages between all facets of our lab’s activities. So, in addition to specific production activities, we discuss issues such as how to enter communities that have been exploited and/or underrepresented, the role of research and analysis in advocacy work, and an understanding of our own positionality as members of the Tulane community and what this means when participating in collaborative activities with communities of color. 

In the exhibition itself, we wanted to ensure that the visitor gains a clear, informed understanding of both the historical and structural conditions that led to the development of Gordon Plaza, but then also a glimpse into the everyday lived experiences of the residents. But we also wanted to allow for the residents to exercise their own self-empowerment through, not only their voices in video and audio, but also as co-creators of the exhibition. And a great big thanks is owed to you, Monica, and the rest of the museum staff for helping us to facilitate this through our overall collective collaboration. Very exciting stuff!

LB: In the exhibition, an equitable path forward is envisioned. What really is at stake here, in terms of solving a social problem and addressing environmental justice in our region?

CO: Solutions to these issues must come from many different efforts and through many different communities and individuals. While we hope that this exhibition provides prominent exposure to a new audience, in reality what’s been happening to the residents of Gordon Plaza has been happening for decades. Consequently, the remedying of this injustice will likely not happen overnight – even though it could happen if enough prominent people within our city, state, and federal government decided to take up this issue and resolve it through relocation. At this point, the issue of blame needs be foregrounded – but not forgotten because moving forward we need to work to ensure this does not continue to happen, even though it does continue to happen. Instead, we need to look forward by taking action now to resolve these types of injustices. But it’s no accident that the injustices experienced by – or really, perpetrated on – this community involves a Black neighborhood.

These residents purchased their homes forty years ago to grab on to part of the American Dream that homeownership would, and should, afford. But now their dreams have turned into nightmares. What’s really at stake here is one more example of a decades-long (or centuries-long) set of structural conditions in which communities of color suffer injustices – from slavery to segregation and Jim Crow to government programs designed to “help” these communities. Programs and policies which resulted in families, unknowingly, being enticed to live on top of a former, extensively polluted, toxic landfill. A site that the US EPA eventually determined should be a federally-designated Superfund site due the number of carcinogens in its soil, water, and air.

LB: How do the maps and graphics in this exhibition shift the local conversation of public health? Maps, in many ways, are the medium of our day because they are interactive and represent complex systems. Information aesthetics plays a part in shaping one’s psychological reality.

CO: A big part of the work we are doing in our lab is trying to explore effective and innovative ways to display information. This information can be descriptive or analytical but, in the end, we want to create a narrative to “tell a story”, so to speak. This is not to say that we aren’t interested in how data provide evidence for what’s happening to the Gordon Plaza community. On the contrary, we are very interested in collecting available data and detailing how these data give us very specific evidence about the consequences for the residents who live on this toxic site. However, we also need to have a way to construct a narrative that tells this story and does so rigorously, but also innovatively and yet simply. Maps are one specific way to do this, and to do so effectively. 

The maps we’ve created tell a very specific story about changes to the landscape, the history and development of the housing on the site, and the amount and location of sampled contaminants. It should be noted that these maps also show what areas were NOT sampled and what this means in terms of understanding the toxicity of specific locations and specific homes. Unfortunately, much of our mapping work is still in development and will not be part of the physical exhibition. However, we are hoping to make this part of the online version of the exhibition down the road.

LB: Who are some of the past and present luminaries that influence CVML’s methods of addressing justice and equality?

CO: Well, this is a very tall order to identify all those who influence our environmental justice work, as well as those who influence our approach, critically, methodologically, and in practice. The foundational works in environmental justice such as Bullard’s “Dumping in Dixie”, works by Beverly Wright, Dorceta Taylor, Paul Mohai, Bunyan Bryant, Julian Agyeman are hugely important – but honestly there are so many more, especially recent works, which are too numerous to list here. Researchers in fields such sociology, history, political science, anthropology, geography, as well as within the professional fields such public health, law, medicine, and development studies. Significant contributions to this field have come from areas such as critical race studies, gender studies, sexuality studies, science and technology studies, Black feminist studies, etc. All of these fields and many other writers, academic and non-academics alike, have had a big influence on our work in the lab.

I would also point out a number of former Tulane faculty, including Scott Frickel, Jim Elliot, Timmons Roberts, and Barbara Allen, whose past and current work continues to influence my thinking on New Orleans and environmental issues broadly. Of equal import is the work of activists and advocates within the broader environmental justice community, who have been critically influential in my education and how I think about this work and the work of our lab: Wilma Subra, Marylee Orr, and Michael Orr, all of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), and one of my community partners; Angela Kinlaw of Peoples’ Assembly, a tireless advocate for all issues of social justice; Monique Harden’s work as an environmental lawyer and advocate, for whom I have a great deal of respect; and May Nguyen, formerly of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and one my mentors and former colleagues.

Again, there are many, many others whose contributions should be noted if we had more space. I do want to identify the work of Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic, whose efforts and activities I used as a model in my conceptualizing of the CVML, but with our lab focusing on the role of environmental social sciences and humanities instead of environmental law. But nevertheless, I envision our CVML as having a similar foundational framework by emphasizing community engaged advocacy, scholarship, and capacity support and by making use of the professional expertise and skills of our staff. Lastly – and most importantly – the community members themselves. These are the real leaders of the environmental justice movement. We – academics, technicians, advocates, and activists – just play a supporting role. As Angela Kinlaw often says at public events, “They – these community members – are the ones who are, and have been, doing the heavy lifting.” Indeed, they have.
[1] Nearly all regulations were either local or at the state level, as there was no comprehensive federal legislation on this until the passage of the Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965). However, the main purpose of the SWDA was to set standards to determine which types of residential and industrial refuse would be subject to the new rules and be required to be disposed of in municipal landfills. Subsequently, issues of how this refuse was handled were still under the jurisdiction and control of local and state agencies.

[2] Although it reopened temporarily in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy, the official closing of ASL is 1958.

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