By Monique Harden (Special to LouisianaVoice)
Before state lawmakers on the Louisiana House of Representatives Education Committee on May 7 unanimously agreed to pass House Bill 180, which would prohibit the building of a new school on a waste site, an official with the LA Department of Environmental Quality gave a full-throated defense of the department’s astounding decision to do just the opposite.
The LDEQ gave the thumbs up to a plan by the Recovery School District to build a new school on the old Clio Street/Silver City Dump in New Orleans. According to Chance McNeely, an Assistant Secretary at the LDEQ who spoke to the Education Committee, the LDEQ uses “the safest, most stringent standard,” but “didn’t find anything that pointed to a toxic landfill or dump site there.” This conclusion is absurd. Governmental records show that this dump received more than 150 tons of waste on a daily basis and operated from the late 1890s to the late 1930s. According to the technical reports prepared by environmental consulting firms working for the RSD, which the LDEQ purportedly reviewed, the site of this former waste dump remains contaminated to this day. These reports show “unacceptable levels” of toxins at the ground surface down to 15 feet below ground that exceed the risk-based standard for residential use and would “pose a risk to children occupying the site.”
It is more than eye-opening that the LDEQ would turn a blind eye to information showing the existence of the Clio Street/Silver City Dump and revealing present-day soil contamination that can harm human health. The LDEQ lacks credibility in concluding that it is safe to build a school on a waste dump.
When McNeely discouraged the idea of avoiding the health risks at the former waste dump by looking at an alternative school site he raised the ire of Representative Wesley Bishop from New Orleans. McNeely suggested that “probably the same thing” would be found at the alternative site as was found at the former waste dump. When Rep. Bishop asked McNeely to explain why, McNeely admitted that he was not familiar with the alternative site. Showing his frustration with McNeely, Rep. Bishop declared, “You’re not making any sense.”
Perhaps the only “sense” driving the LDEQ’s apparent opposition to House Bill 180 is the pressure of approving the RSD’s plan to build the school on the former waste dump in order for the RSD to collect $69 million dollars from FEMA. According to McNeely, “FEMA requires that, if you’re gonna spend that money, you gotta confirm that there’s not a contamination that would be a danger.”
Monique Harden is an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm in New Orleans, LA.
…And for the record, we have, courtesy of Ms. Harden, the transcript of the testimony of Chance McNeely, assistant secretary, Office of Environmental Compliance, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
You may remember Chance McNeely, who moved over from the governor’s office (with a big raise) to become the DEQ Environmental Compliance Officer while simultaneously attending law school. Here are links to some of our earlier posts about Chance:
TRANSCRIPT OF STATEMENT ON HOUSE BILL No. 180
CHANCE McNEELY, ASSISSTANT SECRETARY
OFFICE OF ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE
LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY
(We have attempted to edit out numbers that do not belong. If we missed any and you see numbers that look out of place, ignore them; they’re just the line numbers for the official transcript.)
Chance McNeely: “I would just say. If I may just give you a little bit of history that you guys may already be aware of, but I’ll just proceed anyway. Obviously, we had the Industrial Revolution in the last century. And all of that pre-dated any environmental regulations or laws. So in the sixties and seventies, we started environmental regulations. And so, in the time between there, we obviously had contamination that would take place in various locations. This is not unique to Louisiana. This is something that every state deals with. And so, I just, I guess my comment would be that the point of RECAP [Risk Evaluation and Corrective Action Plan] is to put sites back into commerce. And if RECAP says that it’s, if our system shows that it’s safe, we stand by that system. And I think it’s important for y’all to be aware that there are statewide implications for this bill.
Rep. Carmody: Mr. McNeely, you’re with the Department of Environmental Quality. In these situations where – again, I’m not familiar with the areas in New Orleans were talking about here – but these former sites, impacted sites, the school has then come back over at some point and built on top of them. And the [unintelligible] I was just kind of given was that the remediation plan, I guess presented, has gone through DEQ approval process to say that in order to address the concerns regarding the high standards for some of these chemicals to a depth of – whatever it was – three feet, this has to be removed. And then at that point, encapsulation on top of that should create a barrier to prevent the migration of any of these chemicals. Correct?
Chance McNeely: That’s right. I mean, it’s essentially taking three feet of dirt out, 40 putting six feet of dirt in. Well, before you put the six feet of dirt in, you put a layer – like a fabric –so if you ever dig down and hit that, you know to stop. There’ll be six feet of dirt on top of that that’s clean. And then most of the facility, you know, it’s going to be the school built on top of it. So, there’s not, I assume that there, I think there is going to be some grass area, but a lot of it’s going to be covered with the building.
Rep. Carmody: Do all of these qualify as Brownfields sites?
Chance McNeely: Ummm
Rep. Carmody: And the reason I guess I’m asking you that question is that if it’s a Brownfields site, you don’t go all the way to the bottom of that hole until you finished digging out everything you find, is it?
Chance McNeely: Right. And that’s part of RECAP, where they evaluate all the factors. For schools, it’s treated like residential standards. So this is the safest, most stringent standard for remediation that we have. And we stand by it. So does the EPA. We kind of lead the nation in RECAP. We got a great program. And so it’s, again, we do stand by our standards and say that it is safe.
Rep. Carmody: Just to clarify, you’re here for informational purposes only as a representative of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Chance McNeely: That’s correct.
Rep. Patricia Smith: Question I have for you is when you mitigate a particular site do you inform anyone who’s building there what’s there? Are they aware when they first build 60 of what is actually in the ground?
Chance McNeely: I guess the way to explain that – I’ll use the example that we’re talking about. So the Recovery School District is being funded by the feds, FEMA. FEMA requires that, if you’re gonna spend that money, you gotta confirm that there’s not a contamination that would be a danger. And so, RSD does sampling. We have oversight of that. That’s how we got involved in this is that FEMA requires RSD to make sure that the site is okay. And so that’s how the sampling got done and we got involved. Again, we have oversight. We approved all the sampling plans, everything like that. We run it through our RECAP system to determine, you know, the risks. I’ll also point out and I’ll say that, you know, the sampling that came back was consistent with urbanization throughout the, you know, 1900s. We didn’t find anything that pointed to a toxic landfill or dump site there. So, you know, we’re talking about lead. Lead is the primary thing that we found. And we all know there’s lots of sources of lead, you know, that have existed. And you’re gonna pretty much find that in a lot of urban areas.
Rep. Smith: Well, the question I have though is the school opened in 1942. I’m sure that folks knew it was a dump site at that time. 1942 standards compared to 2015 standards ought to be quite different.
Chance McNeely: They are. There were no standards back then.
Rep. Smith: There probably were no standards. You’re absolutely right. Therefore, there ought to be more stringent standards when we’re looking at something that was already there to be able to determine whether or not anything was emitted from it. You got samples. Did you go all the way down to the 15 foot level for any samples that you know of?
Chance McNeely: I believe we did. I believe we went all the way down. It’s either 12 or 15 feet, I believe.
Rep. Smith: But even if you build and you’re looking at only the three foot level, what’s to say that you cannot disturb what’s under the layer that you put in there? There’s nothing to say that. A bulldozer or something can go farther down – just like folks hit water lines, gas lines, you know, that are underground. So, what’s to say that it doesn’t go beyond that?
Chance McNeely: Again, dig down three feet. Put that fabric in. If you ever get to that point, you see it, and you know you’re supposed to stop. But, during construction, we’re talking about constructing on top of six feet of clean, new soil. And so, the reason you need six feet is out of an abundance of caution. You know, if they had any kind of pipe burst or something that it would be in that six feet of barrier without ever having to down 95 to the area that has any contamination.
Rep. Smith: I guess because of the fact that dump sites and waste sites, Brownfields, and all these are mostly in urban, African American communities. That when we begin to build that’s where we’re building. When we begin to build and looking at trying to replace schools that often times they’re not many places to go unless we look for new 100 sites outside of the urban areas where these have been located and that’s an atrocity in itself. We know that.
Chance McNeely: My response to that would be we’re on the same page. The point of a Brownfields program and RECAP is to put contaminated properties back into commerce. We don’t want to have to build schools for the children of New Orleans way 105 outside of town. We want them to be in town. And there’s contamination in town that we address through RECAP.
Rep. Wesley Bishop: Quick question for you. I am familiar with this area. I am familiar with this district. It’s in my district. And the one thing that stands, I think, as a stark testament as to why we should not be doing this is Moton School. Moton School is in my district. Reason why I know is because my mother-in-law is the principal of Moton Elementary School. And when you look at it right now, you drive in my district, that school has sat there abandoned for years for the very same concerns that we’re talking about. You put that same remediation piece in place. You remediate this particular area, it would actually make it good. The one thing no one has been able to answer for me is why in the world do we have this conversation when we talk about our kids. I can’t figure that one out. My understanding and, Representative Bouie, correct me if I’m wrong, this situation came about based upon the Booker T. Washington High School. I’m also saying also that there is a $40 million budget to erect a new Booker T. Washington High School. I understand that there are some alumni, who have some concerns as to whether or not this will slow down the process. And that’s a valid concern because we’re many years beyond Hurricane Katrina and it’s still not built. But I also understand that there is an alternative site that’s present right now that you could build this very school on right now. Only $4 million has been spent to remediate this process. So, basically you eat the $4 million. As an attorney, it makes sense to eat the $4 million. Because if you don’t and you build this school, the number of lawsuits you’re going to face based upon parents [unintelligible] sent their kids into what most folks consider to be harm’s danger would pale in comparison. Rep. Bouie, can you talk a little bit about the alternative site that’s available for the building of this school?
Rep. Bouie: [Discussion of the Derham School property as an alternative site.]
Chance McNeely: If I may, if it’s the pleasure, if it’s determined that the site has to move, my understanding would be that, you know, FEMA would still require sampling. And I’ll just tell you they’re probably going to find the same thing they found [stops].
Rep. Bishop: But is there reason to believe that a landfill [unintelligible] at the new site?
Chance McNeely: I’m not familiar with that site.
Rep. Bishop: You’re not making any sense. How do you get to interject that into the argument when you have no reason to believe that that’s the case?
Chance McNeely: Because what we found through sampling at the current site has nothing to do with a landfill. It has to do with is standard urbanization: lead. It’s not, we 140 didn’t find anything that said, “Oh, there was a hazardous landfill here.”
Rep. Bishop: I disagree with you totally, sir.
Chance McNeely: Ok.
Rep. Bishop: I disagree with you. I know you gotta job to do and gotta come and make this argument, but I totally disagree with what you said.