NEW ORLEANS — Environmentalists, labor union members and community members launched a soil-cleaning initiative Thursday to help rid yards in a New Orleans neighborhood of what they say are unhealthy levels of such substances as arsenic and diesel fuel.
But state and federal government officials strongly disputed that the soil was contaminated, and accused the activists of "scaremongering."
New Orleans East saw major flooding from broken levees after Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.
"The water has receded and created a hazardous waste site across the city," said James Frederick, assistant director for health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America. "The contaminated soil does not make it safe for families to return, children to play, people to grow things in their gardens."
On Thursday, volunteers donned white paper protection suits, gloves and masks, and used front-end loader tractors to remove 2 to 3 inches of sediment, soil, grass and other items deemed to be tainted from yards, streets and sidewalks of a block of Aberdeen Road. The first phase of this pilot program was expected to continue through the weekend.
The activists said they hoped that their project, dubbed A Safe Way Back Home, would be financed by federal Katrina assistance funds recently appropriated by Congress, and that the cleanup would encourage residents to return.
In February, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University contracted an Austin, Texas, engineering firm to evaluate sediment samples from two sites on Aberdeen Road.
All but one of the samples contained at least one chemical at higher concentrations than the state guidelines for residential areas, according to the engineering company's findings.
The contaminants included heavy metals such as arsenic, which was 40 times greater than the permitted level, and petroleum products such as diesel fuel, which was more than twice the limit, Deep South Center officials said.
Prolonged exposure to toxic substances like arsenic can cause mild symptoms such as an itchy rash and watery eyes or serious health problems including skin and lung cancer and liver damage.
But officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said Thursday that they had tested soil samples from the same neighborhood in December and that there was no immediate cause for concern.
"They are grossly misrepresenting data," said Darrin Mann, communications director for the state agency.
Tom Harris, a toxicologist for Louisiana, said the government originally tested 800 sample locations across New Orleans and found cause for concern in only 46. Testing is continuing on half a dozen sample sites around the city, Harris said.
The EPA said the specific areas in question had been sampled and "the data collected [didn't] trigger a cleanup in this area."
Beverly Wright, executive director for the Deep South Center, said the government did not want to commit the time and money to ridding the city of contaminants, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods.
"It can be easily cleaned up," said Wright. "We're not asking the government for a handout. But we do expect the government to do what they are supposed to do."
It would cost about $2,000 to $5,000 per house to get to rid yards of contaminants, Wright said.
A Safe Way Back Home, which is funded in part by groups including the Ford Foundation, the Public Health Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, cannot afford a citywide cleanup.
"Our overall goal is to see the federal government step up to the plate," said Frederick of the steelworkers union.
The union has about 12,000 members in Louisiana, and Frederick said they had volunteered the expertise gained from working in places where steelworkers could be exposed to toxic chemicals, such as oil refineries.
After the soil collection from the Aberdeen Road yards is complete, each lot is to be landscaped with graded river sand and fresh sod, Wright said.
So far, 23 of 24 Aberdeen Road homeowners consented for their yard to be part of the contaminant cleanup project, said Wright, who lived on the block before the city's levee breach sent water gushing through her neighborhood.
Wright's neighbor Gail Frazier, whose house was gutted, said she planned to come home because she felt confident that the issue of contaminated soil was going to be addressed -- at least on her street.
"This particular project has been instrumental in me making my decision to return, because I'm a gardener," said Frazier, 61, who lived on the block for 34 years before Katrina struck. She is now living in Houston. "I love my yard, and [the contamination] was something I was very concerned about."