Lessons from Ag Street, African American neighborhood built on toxic dump

Thirty years ago, I was living in lush, beautiful Marin County, on the other side of the Golden Gate from San Francisco.  At that time it was one of the most expensive places in America to live.  Well, as faith would have it, my mom got sick, and I moved home to New Orleans.

My first job was with the Mayor's Office: Mayor Dutch Morial, the first African American Mayor of New Orleans. There were plans to build a new subdivision of 67 single family homes. I thought, "This is ideal. This will be our starter home until the kids go off to college." The Government convinced young homeowners that this was a part of a grand future for people of color. The community was nearly 100% African-American with an average annual family income of $25,000. For many, it represented the first and possibly only chance to qualify for home ownership.

Little did I know, we moved in on top of a landfill, a toxic dump.  They decided to construct our homes in an area that was the dumping ground for Hurricane Betsy, without telling us. 

The area became known as the Agriculture Street Landfill neighborhood.  Within three or four years of living in the homes, the toilets literally started moving. Under the slab of the homes, everything was being eaten up by the arsenic and the toxins.

Working in the Mayor’s office, I talked to him.  He brought in the Environmental Protection Agency.  EPA tested the soil. There were 151 carcinogens, and the highest lead and arsenic rate in the country. Our community was added to the EPA’S Superfund list in 1994.

Still, EPA decided to leave the community of low-income residents living on top of a landfill, separated from toxic waste only by a permeable plastic liner that contained major gaps and an inconsistent layer of soil.

My grandson was buried on Friday, February 18th.  He was born on that landfill.  He died of cancer. The same day we buried him, we also buried another 19-year-old who lived across from our house.  We had 62% breast cancer rate in that community. 

Because of the health concerns and because of the sicknesses in my community; because of the women who had, and still are dying of, cancer; because of the kids who have respiratory problems, we became Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill.  We did not know anything about “environmental justice” and toxic landfills, so we organized. It took years and years.  After over 20 years, we finally had a class action lawsuit.

The day that a judge was supposed to render a decision and the people that lived there were going to be paid, was the day Hurricane Katrina hit - August 29, 2005.  Two years later the judge rendered her decision. The nine people who were listed as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had to divide a million dollars (I was not one of those nine).  

We’d been in court for over 20 years.   And finally now we’re having appeals [to get the rest of the community paid].  We’ve been back and forth in court to try to find some solution and put an end to this whole mess.

But let me say this to you – it took a lot of work. A lot of organizing.  And during the time that I started, we weren’t connected online.  I knocked on doors.  It was blood, sweat, and tears.

“Environmental justice” has become a new word and is a tool that we can use to better our organizations and better ourselves.  But believe me, you cannot do it by yourself.  It is critical that you partner with other organizations.  We partnered with Dr. Beverly Wright with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Monique Harden and Natalie Walker with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, and Dr. Robert Bullard.  We lobbied from Louisiana to Africa.

The one thing I’ll say to you about housing, and I’m going to say it until the day I die – remember to ask the questions.  When I moved in this community, I didn’t know the questions to ask.  I didn’t know to ask, well is this house on top of a landfill?  Has a toxic dump been here?  Go to wherever you have to go to and get the facts and get the statistics on your community.  What was there before you built this house? If you don’t ask the questions, they certainly won’t tell you.

Learn more about Ag Street: History of the Agriculture Street Landfill

Ms. Elodia Blanco shared this story at a housing and environmental justice conference in Mobile, Alabama, in February 2011. Transcribed and edited by Ada McMahon. This is one of a series of Bridge The Gulf posts exploring the connection between housing and environmental justice.

Read more in the series:
Q & A with Fair Housing leader Teresa Bettis

Photo by Thom Scott/The Times-Picayune.
Elodia M. Blanco is a leading advocate for Environmental Justice on the Gulf Coast, and works with many grassroots organizations. Her travels have taken her around the world including Geneva, Switzerland and South Africa, where she spoke to the Commission on Human Rights and the World Council of Churches.  Ms. Blanco is a member of many boards and organizations, including President of Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill, Board Member of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Board Member of National Black Environmental Justice Network, and Advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund. Ms. Blanco also has extensive experience in New Orleans city government, including working for Mayor Dutch Morial.