All Residents Have a Right to Return to a Clean, Safe City, Groups Say

NEW ORLEANS (January 10, 2006) -- As city, state and federal officials duel over competing New Orleans recovery plans, a coalition of local and national health and environmental organizations today issued a 10-point plan of action for protecting residents' health and safety during and after the rebuilding. The coalition plan identifies a number of critical short- and long-term tasks, including cleaning up contamination, explaining health risks, ensuring safe schools, strengthening health care services, and reconstructing levees. (To see "Rebuilding New Orleans," click here.)

The 13 groups released their guidelines one day before Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission is expected to present the first of several plans for reviving the city.

"We want to make sure that all residents have the right to return to a clean and safe city, that the hardest-hit areas are given the highest priority for cleanup and rebuilding, and that returning residents can fully participate in the decisions that will affect them," said Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and co-chair of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's sustainability subcommittee.

The coalition's top concern is cleaning up the dried toxic sludge blanketing much of the city. Independent tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others found that contaminated sediment poses long-term health risks. NRDC also found dangerously high levels of mold contamination that no government agency is addressing.

The coalition urged local officials to press the federal government to meet its legal obligation to remove dangerously contaminated sediment. The groups also said local, state and federal officials must do a better job of informing returning residents about potential risks, and provide them with clear guidelines on how they can protect themselves when cleaning and repairing their homes.

"We found arsenic or other cancer-causing contaminants in sediment across the entire city," said Dr. Gina Solomon, an NRDC physician who oversaw independent air and sediment tests in New Orleans last fall. "We also found hot spots where there were some nasty surprises, like spilled pesticides that have been outlawed for decades. The government has a legal obligation to begin the cleanup immediately. People have a right to return to healthy homes and neighborhoods."

(For more on NRDC test results and recommendations, click here.)

As for reconstruction, the coalition groups acknowledge that some buildings reduced to rubble by the hurricanes and flooding may be difficult to rebuild, but their overriding concern is that rebuilding the Crescent City be done in a "fair and equitable manner."

"Low-income residents in the hardest-hit neighborhoods need the most support," said Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and co-chair of the city commission's environmental health subcommittee. "The city must speed up housing requests to FEMA with a focus on low-income families."

The coalition includes Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Alliance for Healthy Homes, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Healthy Schools Network, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, National Black Environmental Justice Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, 9/11 Environmental Action, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Louisiana, and Sierra Club Delta Chapter.