Opinions conflicted on health risk of Gert Town radioactive waste, documents show

Workers clear containers from radioactve debris removal in Gert Town

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Documents obtained by FOX 8 show city and state health officials had conflicting opinions about the threat to public health when dealing with the radioactive waste discovered underneath the surface of a Gert Town road.

Back in April, Shannon Soileau, an environmental health scientist manager with the Louisiana Department of Health emailed the EPA asking what kind of public health risk Radium 226 poses. In her email, Soileau told the EPA the department was given a Power Point outlining the remediation process and also a memo explaining removal. However, she said the documents did “align” in defining a health threat of the substance.

According to the email, the Power Point stated there was no immediate threat to the public, but the memo reported the opposite.

“The current conditions at the site meet the following factors which indicate that the site is a threat to the public health, welfare and the environment and a removal action is appropriate,” the memo stated.

According to the email, the memo went on to state that the current rate of exposure from the Gert Town site is “several times higher,” than what the EPA deems an acceptable limit.

The EPA responded to Soileau’s email, stating the Power Point was a presentation made by the City of New Orleans and did not represent the EPA’s opinions.

More than a thousand people have now joined a class action lawsuit against the City of New Orleans and the remediation company who did work to remove the radioactive material. Madro Banderies is an attorney representing those plaintiffs and said the city documents create more questions than answers.

“Including as to what the causation is, and also, the different agencies that are and were, in our opinion, still scurrying about out there trying to come up with a plausible story,” Banderies said. “Is Gert Town dangerous to its residents? Does it make its residents sick? And where does the radiation come from?”

In May, Dr. Jennifer Avegno -- the city’s health department director -- emailed Tulane toxicology consultant, Dr. Luann White, asking her opinion on possible dust or particle containment during excavation. In her email, Avengo pointed out a particular recommendation to spray water on the site, stating it did not “seem adequate,” to her. She also said she was not comfortable with the information provided if homes in the area should be evacuated or if there were any possible risks to pregnant women.

White’s responded with:

“Misting water can control dust. They have to be careful to get enough to keep dust down, but not so much as to have waste water runoff they need to contain.”

White went on to say the following:

"Radiation seems to be only in the immediate vicinity of the source and does not extend as far away as homes or the sidewalk. The goal is to keep it that way during the remediation. This can be done as they describe, but they need to take care to contain the radiation.”

State epidemiologist Raoult Ratard also weighed in with his opinion during another correspondence this past May. When asked if residents need to evacuate their homes during the work, Ratard said no, so long as the dust was appropriately controlled.

Ratard was also asked if special instructions need to be given to pregnant women, women of child bearing age or children.

“None if they stay away from the site and dust is controlled," he replied.

And, to the question of: “How would the EPA best characterize the level of risk for individuals who have lived on the block and received cumulative exposure?”

Ratard said he did not know.

FOX 8 reached out to the city for comment about this story and recieved the below statement:

In early May 2018, the Department of Energy informed LDEQ that a 2013 security scan of the Gert Town area had indicated a location where radioactivity was noted above background levels. The agency assessed the DOE information and then notified the city a couple of days later, in mid-May 2018. Out of caution, the city decided to proceed with remediation of the low-level source and contracted with a remediation company to complete the remediation project.

When the company began the work in November 2018, the remediation crew found that the radiological contamination in the subsurface soils was spread over a larger area than originally anticipated. The city consulted with LDEQ and LDEQ assisted the city in contacting EPA for federal assistance. The federal agency agreed to provide the contractors, oversee the remediation of the contamination, provide for disposal and fund the project. That work began in April 2019 and is now complete.

At no point did LDEQ record any readings high enough to present a risk to the public in the adjacent community.

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