When James Ruby set out on a quest to save his alma mater, Walter L. Cohen High, he had no idea that he was opening a can of worms — toxic worms, at that, as he wound his way through the terrifying underbelly of education, school development and public health in New Orleans. Today, he’s fighting not just to save Cohen High, but to protect an even larger group of children from being exposed to toxic waste in their schools.
It all started, as many New Orleans stories do, during Hurricane Katrina. While Cohen High made it through the storm, the school’s physical facilities began rapidly degrading after the hurricane due to lack of maintenance, and the school had difficulty retaining administrators and staff. Officials decided that it might be in the best interests of the school, and the students, to close it down. After the closure, officials proposed, students could be relocated to nearby Booker T. Washington, then still under redevelopment.
Ruby and other Cohen alumni wanted to keep their school alive, arguing that smaller classes and a more individualized community would result in better educational outcomes if the city would commit to their school. But when they went digging into Booker T. Washington, they found another compelling reason to oppose the move: the school was planned on the site of a toxic waste dump, and multiple environmental reports indicated the presence of high levels of toxins in the soil. Furthermore, the site is next to a heavily-trafficked road, not an ideal setting for a school.
The advocates went from protecting the heritage of their community to opposing the development of a school on what is effectively a toxic wasteland, pointing out that this is not the first time the city of New Orleans has built a school on top of garbage. It’s no coincidence that in both cases, the schools were situated in low-income neighborhoods with a population consisting primarily of people of color. Such situations are extremely common, explaining why environmental justice advocates and racial equality activists have coined the term “environmental racism.”
Across the United States, there is a strong colocational relationship between communities of color, particularly low-income communities of color, and environmental hazards. Such communities tend to become targets for polluting developments, dumping and other environmental abuses, because they’re perceived as being unable to fight back. In the case of Booker T. Washington, Ruby points out, parents of white children would never stand for seeing their children transferred to a school built on top of a former dump, while Black families are expected to tolerate it.
One reason why low-income communities of color tend to have poorer health outcomes in the United States is because of environmental racism, which makes environmental illnesses more likely and makes them harder to treat. For children in particular, the problem is even worse, because their developing bodies and minds are especially vulnerable to toxins — like chemicals that can make students nauseous and unfocused, making it difficult to concentrate in school. Building a school on top of a dump with high measurable levels of cadmium, lead, antimony, arsenic, mercury and more is a recipe for disaster, yet New Orleans proposes doing just that.
To use the site, it would be necessary to excavate three feet deep, followed by lining it with special textiles and backfilling with clean soil. In areas of the school where foundations and parking areas are installed over the soil, this may be sufficient, but the school’s greenspace would require an ongoing management plan. The Walter Cohen alumni argue that although the city has proposed an environmental plan for managing the site, it may not be sufficient, and this could result in the need for substantial structural repairs and remediation after construction, and likely after students began showing signs of illnesses, as well.
Notably, Booker T. Washington is right next to historically Black housing projects, many of which house older adults. The ongoing pollution at the site stretching over generations is a testimony to the long reach of environmental racism, and the debate over cleanup of the site may drag on for years.
Photo credit: Jes.