In response to parents’ concerns about lead levels as much as 15 times the legal limit, the Orleans Parish School Board has released an updated plan to remediate a temporary site for Audubon Charter School.

Dubbed the Eastbank Swing Space, the tract of land between Richard, Orange, Constance and Annunciation streets in the Lower Garden District will be Audubon’s home for two years until the Broadway campus is remodeled. Initial testing of 43 samples found lead levels at the site’s playground area ranging from 660 to 6,000 parts per million. The current EPA lead standard for bare soil in play areas is 400 parts per million.

Children with elevated lead levels in their blood, typically from contact with contaminated soils, dust or paint chips, may suffer long-term health consequences including slow development, reduced IQ, learning disabilities, hearing loss, reduced height and hyperactivity.

At a May 26 meeting at the school, Dr. Paul Lo, an expert on lead tasked with developing a cleanup plan, called lead levels at the temporary Audubon site “the highest I’ve ever seen.”

Materials Management Group, the environmental consulting firm the Orleans Parish School Board hired to evaluate the site for toxicity, initially tested the playground area, according to a March 31 remediation plan posted on the OPSB website. The consultant offered three options: (1) cover the contaminated soil with sod; (2) completely replace the soil, or (3) fill the area with concrete.

A faction of parents clamored for more extensive testing and remediation of the entire campus, noting children can inhale toxic dust blown their way from other parts of the schoolyard. .

“They only tested one portion of the site,” Audubon parent Melissa Pinero said last week.  “They are going to do partial remediation on the site, the playground area – the only thing is the dust will get into the air everywhere.”

Lourdes Moran, OPSB board president, said Pinero was misinformed. The board never considered limiting remediation to just a portion of the campus.

The March 31 plan showed results of tests done on the playground and outlined a recommendation to remediate that area, but not the entire site. Moran said Friday that the outline of this original plan was confusing.

“At the May 26th meeting, parents were informed the specifications were not yet prepared,” Moran wrote in a statement emailed Friday. “Once we are in receipt of Dr. Lo’s recommendation, our contractors will begin to assess and execute the plans that have been set. The conversation on remediation at the meeting was merely speculative based on test results and thoughts on where our children will be spending their recreational time.”

The revised recommendation was released Monday on both the OPSB and Audubon Charter websites. It calls for dust suppression control and a protective geotextile covering on the site of the modular school buildings and the parking lot. The lead-ridden playground area will also be covered with geotextile and new soil. The entire site will be monitored for airborne lead as well as any lingering soil contamination. The state Department of Environmental Quality will do the testing.

Pinero has seen the new plan, and while she says that it offers more information then the previous plan, it still does not outline the amounts of lead that were found on the other parts of the site.

Pinero is part of a grass-roots organization of Audubon parents who came together in response to Audubon’s decision to move to the temporary site. Called New Orleans Opposes Lead Anywhere, or NOOLA, the organization started a petition drive in late May to pressure OPSB to test and remediate the entire site. The petitioners demands also include decontaminating the parking lot before it is paved. To date, the petition has garnered 312 signatures.

Dr. Howard Mielke, a scientist who has done extensive work on lead contamination in the New Orleans area, says that while the levels at Audubon are about what he’d expect for that part of city, Pinero and parents like her are rightly concerned.

“It is a major problem to children and the parents must work to prevent exposure to lead dust,” he wrote in an email. “The children are not in a position to protect themselves from a legacy left during the 20th century.”

Pinero said she hopes the parental pressure at Audubon will goad other city agencies to take action against high toxicity levels in soil.

“We are calling for the Orleans Parish School Board to look at their properties, be accountable to parents and children and make them safe before they put their kids there,” she said. “We are trying to find a solution and reduce lead poisoning everywhere, not just for Audubon kids.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...