Public records reveal details about discovery of Gert Town radioactive material

Updated: Jul. 1, 2019 at 10:47 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Public records obtained by FOX 8 show there were concerns earlier this year about how much Radium-226 was found underneath a Gert Town Street and when exactly the extent of the issue was revealed.

The public records from the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality lay out what was found underneath the road’s surface at Lowerline Street and Coolidge Court. According to a Department of Energy report, the buried radioactive source was first discovered January 31, 2013 during security sweeps for the Super Bowl.

The report states it was adjudicated as a non-threat and was not addressed further. But it was revisited during World Wrestling Entertainment security checks, this time with “better equipment.”

According to the triage report from the time, the source of the radium-226 was contained, but posed a risk of being dispersed.

“[The source is] currently contained by the road surface, but the condition of the source is unknown and triage recommends that the area should be treated as non-sealed potentially dispersible source, if the surface of the road is breached for repair, reconfiguration or in case of attempted recovery.”

The radioactive waste was only recently removed, roughly six years after it was first discovered. Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s administration said they learned about the issue when Cantrell took office in 2018 and took “immediate action."

“Upon learning of the presence of the underground materials in 2018, this administration took immediate action by notifying residents prior to safely removing the material in close coordination with the appropriate federal and state partners," the city said in a statement.

But, Madro Banderies, an attorney now representing more than 1,000 plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the city and the remediation company over the radioactive waste, said residents have been left in the dark.

“The city assured in this flyer, ‘well, we think it’s okay,'" Banderies said. “Okay, here’s the question at the end of the day: Do you trust the City of New Orleans, do you trust them with your life? Do you trust them with your health?”

In another document, the remediation company reported the city asked them to complete the excavation and removal of the radioactive material by December 31, 2018. However, the company, ARS Aleut Remediation, gave the following recommendation in November of last year:

“Due to the location and time sensitive nature of the remediation, ARS believes it is in the best interest of the City and State if all radioactive material is relocated to our licensed facility in Port Allen, Louisiana where they may be properly secured and managed while completing disposal preparation activities.”

Then, in April of this year, ARS notified the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that because of the magnitude and extent of the radiation, the City of New Orleans contacted the EPA for assistance, and the EPA determined the project should be conducted as an emergency removal action under their authority.

The company further stated that the waste they removed in December of last year remains in a secured temporary storage at their Port Allen facility.

“There is no transparency here," Banderies said. “Who do you trust now? Certainly the people of Gert Town, and I know, I’ve talked to enough of them today, don’t trust anybody and I wouldn’t either. How many more of these documents are coming out?”

FOX 8 also spoke with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and spokesman said they didn’t find out about the radiation until 2018. But, he said nobody thought the situation posed a threat to the public.

The spokesman also said the remediation company started the project in November 2018, but then realized the extent exceeded their scope of the project. He said it wasn’t necessarily more material, it was just spread out over a bigger area than they thought. The spokesman said the city then came back to LDEQ, and LDEQ got the city in touch with the EPA.

On Friday (June 28), both the EPA and the City released statements reporting that monitoring throughout the area has not detected radiation levels of concern or any increased risk to the public.

A city spokeswoman released an additional statement Monday night, reiterating the mayor’s immediate efforts to address the situation and protect the health and safety of residents.

“We engaged state and federal experts to oversee the work and ensure safe and expedient removal of the material. The City will continue to be in constant communication with those state and federal partners until all of the containers have been removed," the city said.

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