June 21, 1999
ELODIA BLANCO: You remember the nice trees they had there?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Elodia Blanco first walked though this New Orleans neighborhood 19 years ago, she saw a good place to raise her family. The streets were safe, the neighbors friendly, and the children had lots of places to play.
ELODIA BLANCO: And we were very excited, thinking that this would be a nice home-- four bedrooms, the lot was large, 160 by 100, you know, lots of space, and thought it was a decent community to live in.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the neighborhood looks different today. Signs of trouble are everywhere, trouble that began when residents discovered that their new homes had been built atop the city's 50-year-old dump.
ELODIA BLANCO: When you tried to plant a garden or tried to grow grass, it was a nightmare. There was everything from bones to truck tires to bottle glass to -- I mean, within -
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In your back yard?
ELODIA BLANCO: In the back yard, the side yard, the front yard. Everywhere you dug, it was just debris.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In 1994, Blanco's home, 66 others, and 221 townhouses were officially declared a superfund site. Since that time, the Environmental Protection Agency has been battling with homeowners over how to handle the problem. Then this spring, the EPA launched its $20 million cleanup plan, a plan that residents reject as unsafe. When initial tests were conducted, the primary toxin found was lead, but 149 other pollutants were also identified. Carl Edlund, EPA chief of the Superfund branch now cleaning up the neighborhood, says testing showed 17 feet of toxins that became more toxic the deeper they dug.
CARL EDLUND, Environmental Protection Agency: The soils, when we tested them in the yards, turned out to be only mildly contaminated at the surface, but significantly more contaminated below ground, and so we couldn't guarantee that in the future someone wouldn't dig up their yard to plant, and then become exposed to those materials.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: To reduce that threat, EPA's cleanup plan will cut down trees, remove two feet of soil, cover the area with a membrane barrier, then place clean dirt on top. But angry residents say it isn't enough to clean only two of the seventeen feet of polluted soil. Only a few townhouse owners have allowed the EPA to even enter their yards, because they fear heavy New Orleans rain will cause toxic soils to shift.
ELODIA BLANCO: There's no such thing as "a little bit toxic," okay? It's toxic, and in answer to their cleanup, that is a cover- up. There is 17 feet of toxic soil. What about under my house? What about the foundation of my house? What about the streets? Those streets were put in when this subdivision was put in. The concrete was put in when this subdivision was put in. That means the community is still not cleaned thoroughly. And if you're only going to clean two feet, you have done nothing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Edlund says the toxins won't move.
CARL EDLUND: Well, we've had this experience in several thousand other residential properties over the last five or ten years. And frankly, our tests showed that after 20 years, the contaminants did not leech up through the soils; they remained stable. And so for this site, by removing the top two feet of soil, placing a geotextile membrane in place, putting back clean soil and re-landscaping, you can prevent lead contamination from being a problem in soils.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The community already blames the dirty soil for many health problems. In 1989, Blanco's daughter Melika, who was then 14 years old, developed breast cancer.
ELODIA BLANCO: It was devastating. It was.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Both mother and daughter believe their proximity to chemicals played a role in Melika's cancer.
MELIKA THORNTON: We'd had picnics, you know, little girl things, playing football with the boys, I mean, all kinds of stuff; we stayed in the grass and in the dirt, and played in the dirt like it was nothing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pushed by the neighborhood residents, the Louisiana Department of Public Health conducted a survey which found breast cancer rates were 60 percent higher then similar neighborhoods.
DR. JAMES BECKER, Physician: Every different kind of chemical has a different time period that it takes before you can see the effect.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although health experts can't prove a connection can be made between illnesses and the chemicals found, the Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry has come in to set up a clinic. As medical director for the project, Dr. James Becker will try to make sense of neighborhood illnesses.
DR. JAMES BECKER: When you work in environmental toxicology, people have the impression that you can just measure a level of everything; and then you measure the level and you can tell people, "it's not safe to live here." Mostly, that's not the case. There are a lot of unknowns about hazardous sites, and I think that's why the anxiety level gets so high, is that we're still working with something that is by and large an unknown.
SPOKESPERSON: For the record, though, right up here -
PEGGY GRANDPRE: We will not go away until we are relocated. We have homes that are worthless. You know, we have homes that we can't even rent. No one should be in that situation. So we want to make it very clear that everybody understands that we understand politics enough to know that this is wrong.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If it's wrong, then who is responsible, and who should pay for relocation? The actual polluter here is the City of New Orleans, but the money to develop the homes came from HUD, the Federal Housing Authority, as part of an effort to encourage first-time home ownership. New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, insists not only does the federal government have the financial responsibility, but they also have the resources.
MAYOR MARC MORIAL, New Orleans, Louisiana: The federal government has the primary responsibility in this regard. We are a city, a beautiful city with many assets, but we're a city where one-third of the people live below the poverty level.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Morial and the city have taken the side of the neighborhood, suing EPA to halt the cleanup and force relocation.
MAYOR MARC MORIAL: Their response is mumbo- jumbo. Their response is an environmental approach that seems to value land over people. People are what this is about.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But EPA's Edlund says the agency offers relocation only to those communities with the highest health risks.
CARL EDLUND: The problem is, the way the law is structured, we have trust funds that are available for cleanup, and if you can do the cleanup without location, then we are authorized to do that. Since we can do the cleanup without relocating, we don't have authority for relocation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: While all sides are pointing fingers, homeowners say they are learning a tough lesson about politics.
PEGGY GRANDPRE: What I've actually learned is the door is open, but whether or not the ears are open is he concern. The door you know, and the hand is there. When you look in people's eyes, the sincerity is there, but the minute you walk out that door, that door closes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: To keep the pressure on and their feet in the doors of government, Grandpre and 30 other homeowners traveled to Washington, DC.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay, let me see some smiles.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For most, it was their first trip here. They met congressional leaders with emotional pleas.
BETTEE LOCKETT: I'm 60 years old. I worked hard to get the house, finish school, raise my two sons. I have nothing left. I m paying a note on something that is worthless. I have no idea what I'm going to do.
NATHAN PARKER: We are living on a poisoned, toxic site that contaminates -- that has -- they say -- they've been tested. There are over 149 that are toxic wastes that has been classified, are toxic. Our kids back there are sick, and we -- it's a slow death for us, really. We just need to be off of this place.
ELODIA BLANCO: I'm begging you all today to do whatever is possible. Temporary relocation is not an option. That's not an option. We need permanent relocation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They demanded and a got a meeting with top management at the Environmental Protection Agency.
SPOKESPERSON: The community people have one goal in mind, and that's the relocation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They brought a representative of the national environmental group Greenpeace to that meeting, and questions about whether past decisions that were made were racist. Damu Smith of Greenpeace has taken on their cause.
DAMU SMITH, Greenpeace USA: The EPA has relocated more white communities than black communities, and that on the face of it is racist. That s an environmentally racist policy, a discriminatory policy, and I think that we have to look at that for what it is. We're talking about African American families here who are not being treated fairly.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Timothy Fields bristles at such accusations. He says race is never an issue , that relocation is just an extremely rare option.
TIMOTHY FIELDS: There are many other communities around the country who want relocation as well, primarily white communities, and we want the location policy to be colorblind. We want it to be applied at any community, irrespective of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion. We want it to be a fair and just policy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The trip may have given the community a second chance. Fields plans to visit the cleanup site on Wednesday, and he says the agency will reconsider relocation for the neighborhood when new EPA guidelines are issued this summer.