Residents Of New Orleans Neighborhood Deemed 'Cancer Alley' Say They Were Duped Into Buying Housing Atop Toxic Landfill
"We thought we bought our houses on clean, safe land!" one resident said.
Black homeowners living in the Desire area of New Orleans are dying at alarming rates from cancer and other illnesses due to the contaminated soil beneath their houses. Jesse Perkins and dozens of other families have told The Guardian that they have complained for decades about illnesses killing local residents who were duped by the government into buying houses on the site, which used to be the home of Agriculture Street landfill.
The Louisiana Tumor Registry released a report this year that said the Gordon Plaza subdivision of the neighborhood had 745 cases of cancer per million people, the second-highest cancer rate in Louisiana. The state average is 489 per million.
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Another 1997 report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined that women living in Desire were 60% more likely to get breast cancer.
The 68-year-old Perkins spoke to The Guardian on Wednesday, telling the British news outlet that the government had abandoned the area's residents to die of sickness because they are Black.
“It’s gone from the American dream to a nightmare. Sometimes I think it’s criminal. How can you treat human beings like this?" he said. "We’re in the fight for our lives. Y’all put us in this situation…We thought we bought our houses on clean, safe land!”
Shannon Rainey also spoke to the Guardian and said flatly that the government used the Black people in the area like "guinea pigs.”
“You knew this was a toxic landfill, so y’all used us as guinea pigs to see how long black folks can live on top of a toxic landfill,” she told The Guardian.
The Desire neighborhood was used as an industrial toxic dump for New Orleans from 1909 to 1958 when it was filled with sand and rebranded as a neighborhood. They marketed specifically to Black families, according to both Rainey and Perkins.
But the sand that was used to cover the fetid soil did little to protect residents from the sickening effects of the chemicals saturating the ground below. Chemist and environmental expert Wilma Subra conducted tests on the land and reported her devastating findings.
“The Agriculture Street Landfill is contaminated with arsenic, lead, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons among more than 140 toxic materials, at least 49 of which are associated with cancer. There is no safe level of lead exposure with respect to developmental impacts on children. In addition, lead can damage every organ system, and the nervous system is especially sensitive to lead exposure. Arsenic is a known carcinogen and can harm health through ingestion, skin contact, and inhalation,” she said after conducting her tests.
At the end of her report, she added that, “chemicals in the Agriculture Street Landfill comprise a toxic stew, with synergistic and cumulative impacts on the health and welfare.”
People living in Desire told The Guardian and many other news outlets that everyone knows someone who either died from cancer or has a family member who did. The most commons types of cancers contracted include lung, skin and bladder. Residents also reported catching other illnesses like dermatitis, asthma, liver damage, pneumonia, chest pain and ulcers.
Other residents also reported birth defects in their children, persistent skin lesions, immune and nervous system damage and disruptions to their reproductive systems.
From the 1970s to 1990s, the city government of New Orleans worked with developers to build up the area and market it specifically to Black families. The city's housing authority used federal funds to help build Press Park Town Homes and Apartments and other developments under three different mayors.
Perkins told The Guardian that no one was ever told the developments were on top of a dump that had been used for the government's industrial waste for more than 50 years.
The EPA was forced to test the site when drums of dangerous, hazardous chemicals began literally rising out of the ground in people's yards. They found that the ground in the area was chock full of carcinogens that would permanently hurt residents after sustained exposure.
Gordon Plaza, Press Park and a local elementary school were declared Superfund sites in 1994, meaning the federal government deemed them areas that needed to be cleaned up. Yet just last year, the area around Press Park was bought and redeveloped into another housing site.
Once the federal government stepped in, the city began to discuss relocation with the residents of the area but eventually backed off because they did not want to pay for the move. The relocation plan would have cost about $12 million at the time.
In 1997, the city and the EPA came up with another solution instead of moving residents. They planned to dig about two feet into the ground throughout the area and place a geotextile mat. They covered the mat with new soil and said that it was now safe — it was not.
Residents have continued to sue, winning two separate class-action lawsuits against the city of New Orleans worth more than $26 million. Due to the large number of homeowners, most people would receive just a few thousand dollars, not enough to buy a new home in another area.
The Black homeowners are continuing to fight for relocation, begging the local government for about $20 million to help the more than 50 families move to uncontaminated areas.
New Mayor LaToya Cantrell met with some homeowners from the area in August and promised to finally address the situation. She even sent out a public response on Twitter promising a solution by October.
“Mayor Cantrell met with residents of Gordon Plaza in August and heard their concerns," Cantrell's communications director Beau Tidwell said. "The Mayor continues to explore opportunities for a possible resolution. No fixed timeline was agreed to regarding any proposed resolution. Because this matter is the subject of ongoing litigation, the City Attorney has advised that there will be no further comment at this time.”
When The Guardian asked the EPA for comment, they doubled down on refuting their own reports, saying the area was not dangerous or contaminated.
“EPA believes human health and the environment are protected from hazardous substances found at the Agriculture Street landfill site. Specific health problems affecting an individual are best addressed by discussing them with a healthcare provider,” an EPA spokesperson said in an emailed statement to The Guardian.
The Black residents of Gordon Plaza sued the city of New Orleans in federal court last April for their inaction, writing in a lawsuit that they were lied to and being left to die of cancer by the government.
“The case is about inhumane and dangerous living conditions that the Mayor and the City of New Orleans have imposed on residents of Gordon Plaza, which is located on the Agriculture Street Landfill. This landfill is a toxic waste dump. The City duped African-American residents into purchasing homes in Gordon Plaza by failing to disclose that the City had built the development on toxic waste and contaminated soil," the lawsuit said.
"The Agriculture Street Landfill—as a direct result of the hazardous and solid waste it contains—is a blighted area, notable for destroyed buildings, including an abandoned school, that attract vermin and potential criminals. Living on the landfill, residents are exposed to toxic chemicals and suffer an increased risk of disease and death. The landfill poses unreasonable risks to residents and cannot support a viable community,” the suit added.
The problems in Desire are part of a larger issue plaguing the land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which is full of industrial plants, construction companies and landfills. The area is now referred to as "Cancer Alley."