It is a toxic waste dump. People live there. They should move but there is no help or assistance to do so.

The Environmental Protection Agency will not fund efforts to move Gordon Plaza residents from atop the former Agriculture Street landfill, city officials revealed this week, a scenario that leaves the city scrambling to fund the relocations amid mounting pressure from those residents. Though EPA officials said in January that they planned to work with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to come up with solutions for that area’s residents, including relocation, city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said Monday that those solutions do not involve financing. That was a surprise to residents who flocked to the steps of City Hall Monday to demand other options. So too was it news to New Orleans City Council members, who quizzed Montaño about funding alternatives at a Monday committee meeting. “When the news release came out on January 6 from the mayor’s office about the future of Gordon Plaza and a partnership with EPA, that made it seem like the EPA was ready to pay for relocating residents,” council member at-large Helena Moreno said.

They only funded a study and an appraisal of the homes – but who will buy them?

Montaño said the EPA only agreed to help the city conduct studies of the Gordon Plaza site. Federal officials also helped the city write a request for proposals from firms that can appraise and negotiate the price of homes in that area, he said. “There’s been a lot of conflation between the EPA process, what they’re doing, with the relocation process. I want to highlight that those two are separate in our mission now,” Montaño said. “We have what we need, and we’ll be able to start moving forward to establish whatever that process will be.” The Agriculture Street landfill, a Desire area dump site that was operational from 1909 to 1957, was identified as a toxic site under the EPA’s Superfund program in 1994. That was more than a decade after city leaders built the Gordon Plaza subdivision atop the vacant land. Comprised of homes marketed to first-time homebuyers, Gordon Plaza was envisioned as a way to help low-income people afford their slice of the American dream. But residents began experiencing signs of toxic exposure just years after moving in, including lead poisoning, respiratory diseases, and cancers.

The residents have sued and gone to insurers and been stymied in all there efforts.

Those residents sued the city and other agencies in 1993. A judge ruled in their favor 15 years later, but compensation received from two insurance companies was far less than what many needed to cover their moves.  Ever since, Gordon Plaza residents have pushed various mayoral administrations to do more. Though the City Council authorized $35 million for resident relocations in January, that gesture was little more than symbolic, as the city does not actually have the money to fulfill that promise. As of this year, the city estimates that people in at least 33 Gordon Plaza households want to be relocated, out of 58 total occupied households.   News that the EPA would not finance relocations was met with dismay Monday. An EPA representative who was slated to speak at Monday’s meeting did not show up, and the agency did not respond by press time Tuesday to a request for comment.

They still keep trying and the fate is now in the city and city council.

Meanwhile, past and present residents of Gordon Plaza pleaded with the city to take action. They said the city should pay residents the amount their homes would be worth, had those homes been built on clean soil. Residents also urged the city to cover their moving expenses, including furniture replacements.  Others said a lifetime of living on toxic land has meant a string of illnesses, deaths and hardships for the subdivision’s families. “I was in that house with my two girls, celebrating the Mother’s Day I couldn’t celebrate with my mom,” resident Sheena Dedmond said. “My mom was ill from the beginning, for my whole childhood. She never got to hold her grandbaby. That’s all she ever wanted.” The problem has spanned generations, and yet, nothing has been done, council member at-large JP Morrell added. “When I look at that course of time, from me being a sophomore in high school to married with three kids, that’s generations of people who have been born and are dying,” Morrell said. “What has been consistent across multiple administrations is a lack of urgency.” Responses to the city’s call for bids from firms that can appraise the Gordon Plaza houses are due in mid-July, city officials said. The city may also rely on a separate analysis that has already been completed, officials said.

Who knows what will be done and how long it will take. All that can be said is to stay tuned.

No help for moving from Gordon Plaza
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