Audubon Charter site has “highest lead I’ve ever seen” in city, scientist says, but promises it can be contained

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This image shows the lead concentration levels in the soil on the proposed playground area of the Audubon Charter temporary campus. (Click to see the full report.)

Lead levels in the soil at the proposed temporary site of Audubon Charter School are the highest one scientist has ever seen in New Orleans, but he assured a cafeteria packed with concerned, angry and sometimes unconvinced parents Thursday night that the remediation techniques he suggests will make the campus safe.

“This is the highest lead I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Paul Lo, a certified lead inspector and lead risk assessor with Materials Management Group Inc., who has headed recent remediation efforts at playgrounds around the city. “But your children are not going to play on the existing conditions, and that’s a fact.”

The Broadway campus of Audubon Charter School is about to embark on a two-year renovation project, but officials were unable this spring to locate a suitable temporary building for the students who will be displaced. What they found instead was a vacant lot at the corner of Annunciation and Orange in the Lower Garden District where they plan to create a campus of modular buildings, but soil tests of the playground area there have revealed lead contamination in the soil that exceeds federal limits by 10 times or more.

The primary threat of lead poisoning comes from direct ingestion of tainted soil or inhalation of lead dust, Lo explained to a Thursday night parents meeting of Audubon Charter School. But removal of tainted soil often uncovers more contamination underneath, so officials instead create a secure covering for the soil: First, they dig up the top layer, then install a geotextile mat that prevents contaminated dust from rising upwards. Finally, they then place six inches of clean soil and new sod on top of it.

On the rest of the site, the construction of buildings and walkways will also serve to contain the dust, officials said.

Many of the parents in the room, however, voiced concerns that the entire site has not been tested for lead, and that the most extensive remediation techniques will only be on the playground site.

Dr. Felicia Rabito of Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, speaking from the audience, said the treatment proposed for the playground is appropriate, but the rest of the site should be tested before it’s assumed that buildings and walkways are sufficient protection.

“What Dr. Lo has proposed for the contaminated site is state of the art. No worries,” Rabito said. “A reasonable concern is to test the rest of the site. If my children were going to be on the site, I would want to know.”

The meeting grew contentious at several points. Audience members disputed the necessity of renovating the Broadway campus immediately, and accused the Rev. Cornelius Tilton, chair of Audubon’s governing board, of failing to explain why the entire site was not tested. A handful of others defended the school officials, praising their work on behalf of the school and urging against criticism of that could derail the project.

Common ground was found on one point: Tilton proposed releasing a more complete site plan to parents, so they will have a better idea how much of the lot will be covered with buildings and walkways. He and school board president Lourdes Moran also said they would look into more options for containing lead dust on the rest of the site, continued monitoring of the site after the remediation and making lead testing more accessible for Audubon students.

“Can we monitor? That’s not a request that’s out of the realm,” Moran said. “We hear you. We hear you loud and clear.”

After the meeting, Melissa Pinero said she has already decided to move her second-grader to Ecole Bilingue, a private school, so he can continue his French curriculum away from the threat of lead, but the experience with the Audubon temporary campus prompted her and other parents to form an advocacy group called New Orleans Opposes Lead Anywhere that will continue pushing for the full remediation of the entire site.

“The only thing I gleaned was Dr. Lo said his recommendations have not been finalized,” Pinero said. “It makes me think that, potentially, he will recommend complete remediation of the site.”

Micaiah Bethune, who has a fifth grader and a kindergartner, grew progressively more cynical as the meeting proceeded. He said he, too, would like to move his children to another French program, either Ecole Bilingue or the new Lycee Francais of New Orleans, a public charter school.

“If we can possibly get in, that’s the plan,” Bethune said. “It’s just funny that they would announce it three weeks after all the school registration is closed for the city, so you’re locked in for a year while you try to find something.”

Parent Shanda Quintal, however, said she is still assessing the lead situation and holds out hope that an acceptable solution will be found.

“I hope they take a stronger stance on protecting the kids,” said parent Shanda Quintal. “‘Good enough’ is not good enough. It’s got to be the best that we can do.”

To read our live coverage of Thursday’s meeting in its entirety, click “Replay” in the box below.

Contact Robert Morris at, or post your comment below.

15 thoughts on “Audubon Charter site has “highest lead I’ve ever seen” in city, scientist says, but promises it can be contained

  1. Why would 100% of the site have to be remediated (through soil removal / replacement) when large portions are going to be covered with buildings and/or concrete which would prevent all lead dust from becoming airborne? Living Uptown, I am sensitive to lead exposure and have my kids tested annually. But the demand for 100% soil removal / remediation has the anti-science position I usually expect from legislators and administration officials in Baton Rouge.

  2. Agreed, Nate. I found the meeting to be quite excruciating. It was clear that some attendants had committed to being outraged no matter what. Things like calling for the entire site to be tested are pointless — Dr. Lo made it clear that he considered the entire site to be contaminated. More tests would just tell him what he already knows. There was also an unwillingness to accept that there is more than one way to remediate (buildings, concrete paths), instead of an insistence on The One True Remediation.

  3. There is nothing wrong with passionate and caring parents voicing and fighting for the safety and well being of their children. All parties have valid points to be considered, but every person and group is on the defense. Shortly after the meeting started the moderator of the meeting told the parent body to be quiet and take turns and to stop th outburts. “We now know why your children act the way they do! – Yes, I just said that!” Those kind of statements made by the moderator put all parties in a defensive and protective stance.

    Lourdes Moran huffing, puffing, rolling her eyes, and texting during parent comments and questions shows a major lack of respect to the people who have put her in office and provide tax dollars for her paycheck (not that the money is glorious to her).

    The project manager’s total arrogance and snide comments like “Lead is everywhere … come on!” does not instill a sense of trust to the guy who is heading this project to provide learning and daily living space to our kids.

    Albeit, a parent went very rogue and shout a word of profanity, the moderating board retorted, “Sit down, BOY” Did I really hear that???!!!

    Yes, it was passionate and there were some outspoken people, but the major lack of respect in the room by the leadership was appauling to me!

    Overall, the site should be remediated completely. Orleans Parish School Board should be taking proactive measures regardless of what parents are voicing. It is a shame they don’t have the foresight to plan ahead as they work on these smaller projects.

  4. There were rude people on both sides of the table. I was stunned by some of Rev. Tilton’s comments, and thought he was generally more combative than was necessary. That said, there were also people in the audience who were also disrespectful of everyone else in the room, and were more interested in their own arguments than in solutions.

  5. The Audubon Charter Board is a disgrace. They are all incompetent and unfit to run a school. It is unfortunate that one has no other choice but to pay a fortune for decent education or put up with this sort of incompetence!

  6. It is inconceivable to me that they would not opt on the side of safety and remediate 100% . There are a lot of “unknowns” when it comes to who is susceptible to what agents and what response a childs body will have and what the combination of triggers may be. I cannot put my trust in this scientist who even though he states these are the highest levels of lead he has ever seen, he feels confident that gravel, paved pathways and skirting around the modulars will contain the dust in other areas than the playground. The safest measures should be taken because there may be just one child that this less remidiated areas will adversely affect and this one child’s life would be worth all the extra remediation costs. I personally am not willing to take that risk with my children and are currently searching other schools and will withdraw them from what has been a happy place for us up until now. I find this very sad.

    • To all parents of audubon. make sure to have you kids tested for lead before they go back to school. If then they get lead poisoning from attending this swingsite campus it should be easy to prove where it came from. And subsequently a lawsuit against Audubon charter board would be a option. How can they defend sending kids to a place that’s been described by their “own” expert to contain the “highest lead levels he has seen in his career” and get away with it?. it is more than obvious that there is zero respect for these kids and their future, and the people in charge will pay.

      • This news is prompting me to test my daughter for lead, because lead IS everywhere in New Orleans (not meant as an excuse against the site being properly remediated). I urge other parents to do the same, and if any of you know a resource that would make it easier for other parents to test their children, I think it would be a good idea to disseminate it to other parents. Please though, be careful not to make this into a “potential lawsuit” idea – just a precaution for our children, because lead is, in fact, everywhere in New Orleans. It makes me curious to know what condition the playgrounds around Nola are like.

  7. I just thought of an alternate site for the Eastbank Swing Space – a giant paved site uptown – just 2 miles from the Carrollton campus

    The site of the old Carrollton Shopping Center. Certainly RSD could lease the site for two years?,-90.059052&sspn=0.164725,0.41851&ie=UTF8&hq=carrollton+shopping+center&hnear=&ll=29.969658,-90.107932&spn=0.010298,0.026157&t=h&z=16&iwloc=A

  8. I think a group of parents, teachers and citizens should get together and file for an injunction in federal court. This is not a community showing it care for the welfare of our children.

  9. Let’s take the best public school in New Orleans, furthermore one of the best in the nation and ruin it for a profit. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT KIDS!!!!!

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