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The former Moton Elementary School in New Orleans

Orleans Parish school district ordered to pay $12 million to students who attended school built on landfill

The site of Moton Elementary, which opened in 1987 and closed in 2005, was declared a Superfund site in the 1990s because of contaminated soil.

A judge has ordered the Orleans Parish (La.) School Board to pay about $12 million to 1,433 former students who attended a school built on a hazardous landfill.

The New Orleans Advocate reports that the judgment equates to $1,000 for every year each student attended Robert R. Moton Elementary School atop the Agriculture Street landfill in New Orleans' Desire neighborhood. 

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit argued the city and the school board did not ensure the area was safe before building homes and the school on contaminated sites.

The school district delayed groundbreaking at the site in 1985 to replace topsoil, but a decade later, tests showed toxins throughout the neighborhood.

Despite the judge's ruling, the Louisiana constitution makes it hard to enforce judgments against government agencies. Local governing bodies have argued that state courts can’t force them to pay judgments.

It doesn’t appear the school board will pay the judgment this school year. In September, the board accepted a recommendation from Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. not to pay legal settlements or judgments this year because of a tight budget.

In the suit, Judge Tiffany Chase ordered it to pay $1,000 for each year a student attended, plus interest. Individual awards range from about $2,000 to more than $20,000.

The Moton building opened in 1987, but the property now is vacant. The facility closed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina when the school was converted to a charter campus and relocated.

The lawsuit contended that the district knew the site was polluted before they built the school. The Agriculture Street Landfill was used from 1909 to 1957. It reopened for a year in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy.

The Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site in 1994 because of contaminated soil.

The district closed the Moton building and used space in a Catholic school for seven years.

The EPA removed topsoil in various parts of the neighborhood and replaced it with clean dirt. But the EPA decided Moton did not need new topsoil because it had been constructed on five feet of fresh soil. The agency removed Moton from the Superfund list in 2000 and the district reopened the school the next year.

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