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Environmental Justice Project Demonstrates How to Clean up New Orleans

By Eddy Ball
December 2006

8131 Aberdeen
For residents of 8141 Aberdeen, A Safe Way Back Home meant a new yard where children can play without fear of exposure to arsenic-laced soil. Workers trained in hazardous material abatement removed the top four inches of sod. FEMA trucks later removed dirt and debris from the curbside. (Photo courtesy of United Steel Workers)

College students in hazmat gear
College students on Spring Break, local volunteers and project members formed work crews that fanned throughout the square block on Aberdeen. NIEHS WETP funding trained and equipped the crews for safe and effective waste removal with hard-to-obtain respirators, helmets and protective gloves. (Photo courtesy of United Steel Workers)

Presenters in "Environmental Justice in the Wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita" used their recent hurricane response efforts to highlight the specific ways that Environmental Justice/Community-Based Participatory Research grantees conduct translational research. An important factor in the success of these projects is forming working and funding partnerships to develop effective models for government agencies and community groups to implement.

Panelists included NIEHS Industrial Hygienist Sharon Beard of the Worker Education and Training Branch, Analytic Chemist and Environmental Consultant Wilma Subra and Bishop James Black of the Center for Environmental and Economic Justice in Biloxi, Miss. The fourth member of the panel, Labor Institute Associate Director and United Steel Workers (USW) Shop Steward Paul Renner, reported on "A Safe Way Back Home," a unique demonstration project in New Orleans.

The project set out to demonstrate cost-effective ways that could be applied city-wide to conduct a clean up and create opportunities for individuals and small businesses. What resulted, he said, was a model for government agencies to "create jobs for people, clean up that place and make it environmentally safe."

The environmental neighborhood clean up initiative and community outreach campaign Renner helped oversee was a joint effort of Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) and the USW. The $35,000 project focused on removing tainted soil from residences in the 8100 block of Aberdeen Road in New Orleans.

Analysis of sediment samples taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from two properties at the project site showed that all but one sample contained levels of chemicals at a higher concentration than state or EPA guidelines. In some samples, arsenic levels were more than 40 times EPA guidelines. In one property, diesel range organics were twice the state levels, and high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found at the other.

Over a four-day period in a one block area, project workers removed at least four inches of contaminated top soil from the yards of 27 homes. They then stacked the contaminated sod in the streets for removal by FEMA contractors and landscaped each lot with river sand and fresh soil. At the conclusion of the project, workers pressure-washed sidewalks, curbs and streets to remove contaminants.

Project funding sources included four USW employers and non-profit groups, such as the Ford Foundation and the National Resources Defense Council. NIEHS provided funds for Hazardous Waste Worker Training Programs and Minority Worker Training Programs as models for educating cleanup workers about how to identify, control and prevent potential health hazards. Volunteers came from groups throughout the U.S., many of them college students on Spring Break. Local groups and businesses donated the use of space and earth-moving services.

Training by the USW ensured the safety of volunteers. The program also offered small and disadvantaged businesses and contractors involved in demolition, debris removal, mold remediation and clean-up in the city of New Orleans the opportunity to obtain certification in hazardous materials remediation.

"A Safe Way Back Home" was a highly successful demonstration project that served, in the words of its architect, DSCEJ Director Beverly Wright, Ph.D., "as a catalyst for a series of activities that will attempt to reclaim the New Orleans East community." For her role in the project, Wright received the prestigious $120,000 National Robert Wood Johnson Gulf Coast Community Health Leadership Award. For Renner, the project was another effort in a career devoted to helping disenfranchised people achieve solidarity and justice.

NIEHS Worker Training Education Program (WETP)

In her panel presentation on October 26, NIEHS Industrial Hygienist Sharon Beard outlined some of the ways that NIEHS has helped displaced residents of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina and Rita and met other training needs elsewhere since 1987. WETP has awarded Minority Training Program and Brownfields Program grants to a number of projects for meeting unanticipated training needs related to hazardous wastes and natural disasters, as well as helping minority workers and contractors become qualified in hazardous material abatement. Among WETP accomplishments are the following:

  • Developing "gold standard" model training programs in conjunction with public health specialists and other experts to build participants' skills
  • Funding 18 different non-profit organizations and universities, representing over 80 groups involved in training programs for workers engaged in hazardous materials response, emergency response, radiation abatement and, most recently, weapons of mass destruction response
  • Creating national benchmarks for training and minimum criteria for health and safety training that became Appendix E of the Hazardous Waste Standards, 1910-120
  • Awarding grants for training minority environmental and construction workers, preparing more than 6200 workers since 1995

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