High lead levels at old incinerator site in Central City trigger residents' fears; city plans remediation

When Nadiyah Taylor and her husband, Benny Dominach, walked into the bright pink double house on Seventh Street in Central City, they knew it was the one. They signed the papers in August 2018. Taylor gave birth to a baby boy two days later.

“It’s perfect,” she remembers thinking. “It’s pink!” she laughed. “It’s the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. It definitely spoke to us.”

What they didn’t know then was that their house was facing the former site of an incinerator that blew so much toxic waste into the air that state air quality control officials warned the city twice in 1974. Complaints about the toxic fumes and ash forced the dump, five blocks from St. Charles Avenue, to shut down completely by 1986.

When they attended their first community meeting in May of this year, Nadiyah and Benny also found out that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had documented high levels of lead and PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in the soil in 2009. PAHs are a carcinogenic byproduct of burning organic matter — in this case, trash.

The soil in the one-block area is contaminated with lead in some areas at over four times the acceptable amount for children. The block is bordered by Seventh, Sixth and South Saratoga streets and Loyola Avenue.

Now, like Gert Town residents 2½ miles away, Taylor, her husband and their neighbors are asking why they weren't told when the city first found toxic substances in their neighborhood.

The city has planned a remediation for the space 10 years after the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative commissioned a grant-funded survey showing the dangerous levels of contamination. The work should be completed by the end of the year, according to the city.

But residents are worried that the plan, which involves removing a few feet of soil in some areas and up to 5 feet in others, will cause the lead and PAHs to migrate into their lawns, heightening their risk of exposure. 

The 21-page removal plan, put together in March 2019 by the Leaaf Group for the LDEQ, details where the lead is highest and how workers will remove it. But it doesn't address residents' concerns about migration of the lead during heavy rains and during the remediation process.

Lead is dangerous for anyone, but especially for children. It takes very little to cause lasting damage. An amount about the size of a sugar packet distributed evenly over a football field is enough to cause lead poisoning in small children. At low levels in the body, it can cause anything from hearing loss to learning disabilities. For children, exposure can cause irreversible brain damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency standard for areas that children frequent is 400 parts per million. The highest lead levels on the former incinerator site are 1,700 parts per million.

“That’s much higher than the level considered the threshold,” said Felicia Rabito, a Tulane epidemiologist who has studied the effects of lead for 25 years. “If the soil is covered, then the concern in terms of public health and exposure is minimized."

Now an empty lot, the site is fenced off and mostly covered by concrete. But residents fear recent heavy rains may have caused the soil to migrate. Taylor was alarmed this summer by milky-white floodwater collecting in the street, which historically has not flooded.

“If you have a site that is bare ground and you allow that site to flood, the finer particles in the soil … can be transported elsewhere,” said Chris Johnson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University.

The contaminants are mostly concentrated in the first few feet of soil, making for potentially easy dispersal during flooding.

“Should families in that area be concerned? Absolutely,” said Johnson. “There’s always the possibility that some of those particles could find their way into people’s yards.”

Residents who organized a community meeting at the YAYA Arts Center on Thursday voiced concerns about their gardens and dogs. Animals, like children, are especially susceptible to lead poisoning.

“Dogs are like the canary in the mine,” said Rabito. “People’s pets start acting weird. And the vets in this city know to test for lead. Sure enough, the test comes up positive.”

"I grow vegetables and herbs," said Linda Gielec, a librarian who moved to the neighborhood in 2014. She placed third in a citywide garden contest a few years ago. "If I'm eating that ... I don't know how to clean the soil."

For a young mom, the remediation itself is the biggest concern. 

"I'm not going to stay there with my child," Taylor said. "Put us in a bubble, I don’t know — I just don't want to be there with all that stuff."

Anyone worried about lead in their yard should get a lab to test the soil, said Rabito. That’s especially true if they live in a home built after 1950 that may have leached lead paint into the ground.

In an email, the city said the correction plan for the former incinerator site calls for sediment traps around the site and silt fencing to prevent migration of soil from the site during construction — standard practices to prevent pollution to stormwater. 

Taylor’s son will have his 1-year-old checkup later this month. But Taylor wants to move it up to test for lead in his blood as soon as possible.

And while residents want to see the site cleaned up, they want to know how it will be done and what will be placed there afterward.

Some are confident that the remediation will make the neighborhood a better place to live.

“It’s not 1970 anymore,” said Gielec. “The city has our interest and health in mind better than they used to. Regardless of what happens, I think it will be better than what it was.”

But others worry that a cycle of hazardous exposure will continue, citing the city’s record with pollution in poor and minority communities.

"This would never happen on the other side of St. Charles," said Taylor. "It wouldn't happen in Lakeview, either.”