Cleaning up Gert Town

Back in the 1960s, Wesley Magee Jr. worked at the Thompson-Hayward chemical plant in Gert Town, a poor, New Orleans neighborhood. His job was to stand outside the plant mixing toxic sludge – DDT, Aldrin, Agent Orange – in a giant kettle; the mix was so potent that the fumes made his skin burn, even through his gas mask and protective clothing. “It would find some way to get underneath it,” he told the Times-Picayune years later. “Especially when you sweat, it would burn even worse. Have you ever bit a hot pepper? That’s it.”

The chemical plant was shut down in the ‘80s after workers were caught dumping solvents in city sewers. Finally, last fall, officials from Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality proudly declared the site clean: Despite delays caused by Hurricane Katrina, the plant’s buildings had been demolished and the last of the site’s tainted soil hauled away.

But while the site itself may now be safe, locals fear that neighboring blocks may have been left dangerously polluted by open-air mixing processes that routinely sent clouds of toxic dust billowing across the neighborhood. “You couldn't set on your porch, you couldn't be outside,” one longtime resident told the Living On Earth radio show. “It’d strangle you.” Recent tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggest that Katrina’s floodwaters may have made the situation even worse, swirling toxic slurry from the plant across the neighborhood.

The EPA’s own testing suggests locals are right to be concerned: Soil samples show DDT derivatives at 3.8 times acceptable levels, and Dieldrin at almost 40 times the safe limit. Other chemicals – Endrin, Endosulphan, and the termite killer Chlordane – were also found in dangerously high concentrations. So far, though, officials have refused to clean up anything but the plant itself, arguing that pollution levels on neighboring blocks aren’t high enough to affect residents’ health.

Independent experts say that the government is basing its claims on inaccurate risk estimates that focus on the risk from direct contact with tainted soil. In fact, indirect absorption can be far more dangerous: If people eat vegetables grown in the soil, or if mothers who’ve had contact with the soil breastfeed their babies, the health risks could be several orders of magnitude greater.

Local activists are still hoping that government officials will see the light and order a comprehensive neighborhood cleanup – but nobody’s holding their breath. Sadly, it seems likely that despite the Department of Environmental Quality’s triumphant declarations, Gert Town residents will be living in the shadow of the Thompson-Hayward chemical plant for years to come.