Community worried about plans to build school on 'toxic' site

Tania Dall / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @taniadall

NEW ORLEANS -- Community members are up in arms about the Recovery School District's plans to move Walter L. Cohen high school to a different and now closed contaminated school campus.

A town hall meeting was held Thursday night at the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church where General Russel Honore addressed a divided crowd.

'The decision to build Booker T. Washington High School was made through the school facility master plan process,' said RSD Deputy Superintendent of External Affairs Dana Peterson.

Not much is left of the original Booker T. Washington High School.

RSD has been demolishing the old building to make way for the new. But, there is a catch.

'I think it's inappropriate that they would consider building another school on top of the Silver City dump,' said Dr. Wilma Subra, an environmental chemist.

RSD wants to replace the former -- now mostly demolished -- high school with a new $55 million facility. The site was once home to the old Silver City waste dump, which closed in the 1930s.

A report submitted to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality says testing confirmed dangerous levels of arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, zinc and other heavy metals in the soil.

RSD wants to clean up the contamination by digging up a few feet of soil and then building a new school. Officials say it will be safe for Walter L. Cohen students and staff to eventually move there.

'We are confident that the remediation plan will make the site safe and prep it for what is going to be a 21st century world class facility,' said Peterson.

Community members, along with General Russel Honore, met Thursday night to talk about the controversial proposal.

'We sit here tonight and we are bringing forth an argument whether we should build a school on a toxic dump site,' said Honore, who opposes RSD's plans.

Subra said it is also a bad idea to rebuild on the site.

'There are a number of buildings left on site the gymnasium and all. They're not going to remediate any of the waste under those buildings that will remain on-site,' Subra said.

However, Booker T. Washington alumnus Carl Galmon believes the site is safe. He's calling for an investigation into how RSD has been slow to use FEMA recovery funds to rebuild schools in New Orleans.

'Why now? After over eight years of having the money, you decided to find so-called cancer causing chemicals in the ground. I'm not buying the hype,' said Galmon.

Walter L. Cohen High School's Alumni Association has filed a lawsuit against the Recovery School District. A hearing is scheduled in Baton Rouge on July 7.

DEQ confirms it is also involved in active litigation and it has approved RSD's mitigation plan.

RSD says it is waiting on final approval from FEMA to move forward with the project.


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