City Council presses Cantrell’s office on plans to move Gordon Plaza residents off toxic landfill
Top officials in the Mayor LaToya Cantrell administration faced scrutiny from New Orleans City Council members Monday over the relocation of residents living on top of a hazardous waste site known as Gordon Plaza.
Its residents have ramped up pressure on the City Council and mayor’s office over the past year, calling for the city to buy them out of homes built on land used for decades as a landfill.
Cantrell pledged to relocate residents in her first term and restated that promise when she was re-elected last fall. The administration looked to redevelop the area into a solar park or another productive use to justify the acquisitions and fund it with federal money.
But on Monday, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said that had changed and the two efforts are separate at this time. The federal funds might be used for redeveloping the site, but officials aren't as certain that those dollars will help with relocating residents.
“We are no longer looking at that path for a solution,” Montaño told Council members during the Climate & Sustainability Committee meeting. “That’s off the table, and now we’re dealing directly with the residents.”
To deal with the residents, city officials said they wanted to hire an outside law firm to handle the acquisition and property appraisal — a move that raised eyebrows among Council members.
City Council president Helena Moreno, vice president JP Morrell and Council member Leslie Harris questioned why the city planned to hire lawyers rather than a real estate firm to conduct the appraisals before entering mediation with the residents. Moreno argued the law firm would simply contract out the appraisal work on the city’s behalf, costing more money.
Morrell added that the city receiving appraisals would be “more expeditious” as opposed to dragging the work out even longer, especially since lawyers on government contracts will make money off billing more hours. Delay, the former defense attorney also noted, was often used by lawyers to avoid payouts.
“A standard tactic when you have a large class with significant health outcomes is to wait the people out ‘til they die,” Morrell said. “The legal counsel proposition gives me tremendous concern.”
Gordon Plaza residents have called for relocation since the Environmental Protection Agency declared the site of the former Agriculture Street Landfill a Superfund site in 1994. That was 13 years after the neighborhood was built and marketed to Black residents looking to buy their first home.
The EPA found that the soil was laced with more than 50 hazardous compounds such as arsenic and lead caused by five decades of waste disposal there. This year, the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the Desire area, of which Gordon Plaza is a part, had the second-highest rate of cancer in the state — which some residents blame on the landfill.
The area once hosted a public housing development called Press Park, a senior housing complex and an elementary school that were all shut down after Hurricane Katrina. The 67 properties in Gordon Plaza are all that remain. Department of Public Works acting director Cheryl Robles said about 58 properties are still occupied, mostly by their owners.
Federal courts have found the city, as well as the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board, responsible for emotional distress and property damage caused by constructing on top of the hazardous site twice, most recently in March on a $75 million judgment.
But in the past, the money given to residents hasn't been enough to relocate, and with the most recent suit, it’s uncertain whether the city will pay up.
Instead of waiting, several City Council members have said they want the city to fund the residents’ relocation from the capital budget. In January, the Councilvoted to budget $35 million — the amount that residents believe is needed to fund their relocation and moving costs — but the Cantrell administration has yet to allocate it from a pool of money, looking to verify the residents’ estimate.
Moving forward, Montaño said he felt appraisals and negotiations are now the only things standing between the residents and relocation. Finding the money shouldn’t be an issue, he said.
“Where I'm most concerned is how to get a fair deal for the residents,” he said.
Residents and organizers argue that their compensation has already been analyzed by experts brought in by the Tulane Environmental Law Center, which represented residents in two failed lawsuits against the city.
By the end of the more than two-hour meeting, the process of evaluating the cost of relocation remained unresolved. But Moreno scheduled a meeting between the administration, Council members and the Gordon Plaza residents for next Tuesday, May 17 to discuss whether the Tulane analysis or its methods could be used for calculating how much the city pays the residents.
Council members and residents emphasized the urgent need for the matter to come to a swift end as the population residing in Gordon Plaza continues to age. Many of the most vocal advocates are seniors who have had health issues themselves.
“We have given you everything you need to see, read. The only thing we need right now for you all to know is where the funds are coming from and how soon the money will be disbursed to the residents of Gordon Plaza,” said Shannon Rainey, a resident. “We need to be gone, like, last year.”