The story of a decades-long lead-poisoning lawsuit in New Orleans illustrates how the toxin destroys black families and communities alike.
Casey Billieson was fighting against the world.
Hers was a charge carried by many mothers: moving mountains to make the best future for her two sons. But the mountains she faced were taller than most. To start, she had to raise her boys in the Lafitte housing projects in Treme, near the epicenter of a crime wave in New Orleans. In the spring of 1994, like mothers in violent cities the world over, Billieson anticipated the bloom in murders the thaw would bring. Fueled by the drug trade and a rising scourge of police corruption and brutality, violence rose to unseen levels that year, and the city’s murder rate surged to the highest in the country.
Four hundred and twenty four people were slain in New Orleans in 1994, a murder rate that may have been the highest ever in any American city. Rival drug dealers killed each other while cops killed witnesses and whistleblowers in plain sight. Almost 1 percent of all young black men in the city were killed that year. Many of those murders were committed in the yards and units near where her sons, Ryan and Ronnie—then aged 5 and 3 years old—played or stayed with relatives and friends. Even as a Bill Clinton-led federal government used popular fears of “superpredators” to redouble the nation’s commitment to mass incarceration, Billieson attempted the superhuman task of trying to provide her children with a way out of Lafitte.
But the obstacles for a young mother and her two children ran deeper than the onslaught in the streets. “They played inside a lot,” Billieson said, “and we thought they’d be safe that way, but then we learned even that was bad for them.”
Inside the apartment, her boys were insulated from the crossfire outside. But like thousands of others seeking shelter behind the peeling walls muffling the bubbling bass dripping from Crown Vic speakers, the poison of lead would find a way into her sons’ bodies all the same. Ryan and Ronnie, along with thousands of other poor children in New Orleans whose parents believed they could shelter their children from the violence outside, would become an entire poisoned generation.
Lead was only one of many ecological risks her family faced. The playgrounds where Ryan and Ronnie played often brimmed with pools of fetid, standing water—owing to New Orleans’s fabled and constant flooding—that were sometimes tainted with battery acid. Billieson had heard tell about the regurgitated sewage and chemical waste from Louisiana’s booming petrochemical operations that flowed back into dirt common spaces where her children learned to walk, all while they breathed in the emissions from the nearby roads and highways.
Some other kids across the virtually all-black New Orleans housing projects had it even worse. That year, the Press Park section of the Desire projects and its nearby elementary school were declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency for a concoction of known contaminants leaching from a closed landfill.
Billieson did her best to protect her boys, and she certainly wasn’t naive about the sicknesses that dogged her neighborhoods. People in the projects were well aware that their environments weren’t healthy, and she went the extra mile; researching the specific risks her kids faced, including those from lead, at the public library. But what do you do when everything is contaminated?
Around the time Ryan was entering kindergarten and Ronnie was supposed to be learning how to count to 10, the boys began struggling with the childhood learning goals Billieson set for them. “They had learning disabilities, and when I say disabilities, I mean learning at a slower pace,” Billieson told me. But black kids in the projects were written off and diagnosed with learning disabilities all the time, and good, affordable doctors were scarce. There still wasn’t much even the most diligent parents could do.
One afternoon word spread around Lafitte that a group of white folks—a rarity in any of the projects outside of the occasional housing authority official or police officer—was asking around about lead poisoning. “A lawyer and his team were in the area doing testing on the soil, and I was on my way to the doctor’s office with my kids,” Billieson said. “So I stopped and had a conversation with them about lead poisoning. A suggestion from them was to have the kids tested.”
When the blood came back, Billieson found out that both of her children were poisoned and likely had been for years. In a panic, she called the lawyer who’d left his card with her. That phone call began a legal war of attrition that spanned more than two decades, three presidents, and one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history.
Gary Gambel was a young man in 1994. Just a few years past the Louisiana state bar exam, he’d recently helped start the law firm that now sits in the heart of the business district and boasts his name across the front door. He was known among friends and law school classmates for his activist leanings, and those leanings had turned into full-blown fever by the time he met Casey Billieson that spring day and told her to get her kids tested for lead poisoning.
Gambel had been trying to find a way to investigate the lead-poisoning issue in New Orleans housing developments ever since an old associate of his uncovered several positive lead-poisoning tests while working a different case involving public-housing residents.
“He called, and he said we had a doctor who works for a medical program in the projects and all these kids are coming in lead poisoned,” Gambel told me. “So I went to go meet them, and I met one mom and then her neighbor.”
His plan was originally to take some of cases on a pro-bono basis, helping families move out of lead-contaminated homes and pressuring the housing authority into providing them abated or renovated units. But he soon found that just about all the families he spoke to had kids who tested positive for lead poisoning, and the city hadn’t abated any units across its developments. Gambel’s response when realized he’d stumbled onto one of the worst public-health crises in America was one of awe: “I said, ‘God, we need to do something.’”
Even then, dozens of positive blood tests later, Gambel—a business lawyer by training—and his small start-up firm didn’t quite realize the nature of the leviathan they hunted. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) had been labeled as a “troubled” housing authority by the federal office of Housing and Urban Development since 1979, and by 1994, HANO housing was among the most miserable places to live in the country.
HANO was once the crown jewel of the mid-20th century program of federally funded public housing. Even at the height of Jim Crow, the well-built HANO projects anchored mixed-class, inner-city black neighborhoods. But the projects had deteriorated since then, aided by white flight, reductions in services, and a backlash against black political power. By the time Billieson was entering adulthood in the late ’80s, the big projects—Calliope, Magnolia, Florida, Lafitte, and Desire—that had once been known as brick bastions of the black working class, were known through hip-hop for bleakness and toughness.
HANO authorities simply didn’t respond to thousands of complaints or keep buildings up to code. In 1994, 15 years after HANO was labeled a “troubled” development, HUD inspectors visited 150 units in the neighborhood and found that all 150 units failed to meet standards—with problems including peeling lead paint, asbestos exposure, and massive roach infestations—and that none of the units had been updated at all in 10 years. HUD rates housing authorities on a 100-point quality scale, with a score below 60 indicating a “troubled” development. In 1994, Billieson was raising her boys in a project that had just received a score of 26.
There is no safe level of lead in the human body. Even at low levels, chronic exposure can damage the brain and the central nervous system, and can cause symptoms from hearing loss to IQ deterioration to lack of impulse control. Over time, lead gets absorbed into the bones, making them brittle and stunted, and causes teeth to crack and rot. Exposure in young children with developing minds and growing bones is most destructive, and in times of serious stress and trauma—common in places like the New Orleans projects in the 1990s—those effects are magnified. Each poisoned child in HANO dealt with at least some of those issues, many or most of them for life.
The first sign of lead trouble in HANO came in 1985, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the standard for lead-poisoning intervention at 25 micrograms of metal per deciliter of blood. Kids were regularly testing at levels well above that level across New Orleans in 1985, even more so in the projects. In 1987, a group of residents in the St. Thomas housing development, led by resident Virginia Mitchell, filed a lead-poisoning lawsuit against HANO that was eventually settled with a consent decree demanding HANO take action to abate lead in its units.
HANO did nothing, and the trickle of complaints became a deluge in 1991, after the CDC decreased its actionable guidelines for lead exposure from 25 to 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. According to a 1993 Government Accountability Office report, “during 1991 the New Orleans Housing Authority settled over 60 lawsuits that cost over $1 million in claims and attorneys’ fees.”
The onslaught of lawsuits was such that HANO lost its ability to secure commercial liability insurance. HUD forced the city to cede control over the HANO developments to a succession of private third-party managers who still couldn’t get a handle on lead poisoning. The city-appointed board and the managers squabbled constantly, according to federal oversight reports.
While Gambel was looking for potential plaintiffs, HUD declared HANO in breach of its contract and stepped in to create an oversight agreement. The scandals regularly made national news outlets. A Washington Post article from April 1994 quoted the former HANO managing director Shelia Danzey: "I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel for at least five or six years, and that's a light that is pretty dim.”
It’s no surprise then, that a legion of lead-poisoned black residents in the New Orleans projects had answered Gambel’s summons, most of them concerned mothers and their affected children.
There were Billieson and her two sons. There was Sheila Green in Lafitte, whose twin sons, Ronald and Donald, tested well over the 1991 lead guidelines, with one son receiving almost four times the legally actionable amount and exhibiting hyperactivity and multiple learning disorders. There was Joyce Galmon in C.J. Peete Housing, whose four kids had speech problems. There was Detress Lewis, also in C.J. Peete, whose two children had blood-lead levels twice as high as even the looser 1985 guidelines, and whose complications were so severe that they had to be hospitalized.
Hundreds of women who’d been born in the projects and poisoned with lead their whole lives passed metals in utero to their children, whose first breaths took in clouds of white leaden dust. Lead levels per deciliter of blood among the plaintiffs regularly measured in the 20- to 40-microgram range, with spikes above 50 micrograms. (The water-contamination crisis that began in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 was triggered by blood-lead levels over the current upper limit of five micrograms per deciliter.)
“I had to get involved,” Billieson told me. “When I looked at the flyers and the books, I knew it was life or death.”
New Orleans probably won’t ever face a lead-poisoning crisis nearly as bad as the HANO episodes of the ’90s. But an understanding of just how toxic the substance is has risen over the past few years, even as science has revealed the sheer ubiquity of its remnants in places as disparate as Los Angeles, Flint, and Baltimore.
Joan Dominique, who lived in the lead-poisoned Desire projects, sees long-term effects in her children who deal with hearing problems, ADHD, and learning disabilities. “It just makes me angry because my kids are hurt and can’t succeed the way I know they should,” Dominique told me. “These kids are working at Popeyes now.”
For some HANO kids, even the stability of a fast-food job is permanently out of reach. Marcel Coleman—one of the then-infant plaintiffs in the Billieson court dockets—was shot and killed in the Florida neighborhood in 2015. Among the leading plaintiffs, Ronald Green was also killed, and many others didn’t make it to see the settlement. Some of the young men—made turbulent, their mothers claim, from the lingering effects of lead—who should have collected settlements missed out, locked away in places with names like Angola, Dixon, and Elayn Hunt.
For each of these missing victims, the unasked question is the same: How much of a role did lead poisoning play in their fates?
I spoke to Howard Mielke at his lab at the Tulane Medical Center. Mielke, a geographer and environmental researcher, is one of the most prominent lead-poisoning experts in the country, has dominated the lead-poisoning research in New Orleans for years.
In 2012, Mielke and co-author Sammy Zahran examined crime—specifically aggravated assault—in six cities, including New Orleans, and its relationship to lead in gasoline emissions. Their results were startling: Increases in lead aerosols were strongly associated with increased crime, and according to their research, differences in lead levels accounted for about 90 percent of the variation in crime between the six study cities.
The lead-crime conundrum is a relatively recent addition to the sociology of crime. In early 2016, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones detailed the chronology of this line of research, which actually starts in 1994. Rick Nevin, a HUD consultant on the risk-impact analysis for lead-paint reduction rules, developed a hypothesis that the main societal cost of lead poisoning was its effect on crime, mediated through its cognitive effects on boys and young men. That hypothesis was expanded by Amherst College researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, who identified critical pathways of the potential effect—with juvenile delinquency, ADHD, and low IQ connecting populations of young black men to ultimate criminal outcomes and incarceration.
Enthusiasm about the lead-crime hypothesis has been blunted by recent research. A 2015 report from the Brennan Center on factors that caused the decline in crime since the ’90s calls the hypothesis “controversial,” and notes that some elements of Reyes’s work have been difficult to reproduce, although it does list lead poisoning as one of 13 possible crime factors in the decade. A study that same year by researchers Janet Lauritsen, Maribeth Rezey, and Karen Heimer also did not find a significant correlation between lagged lead poisoning and homicides using a different dataset.
Even if lead plays a smaller role in crime outcomes than Mielke, Nevin, and Reyes suspect, it’s possible that it contributed to the most violent time and place the country has ever seen, especially given the extremes found in HANO. What’s known without a doubt is that communities don’t thrive when poisoned, regardless of whether that poisoning is the disease or just another symptom.
Given that lead does have easily identifiable and dramatic effects on behavioral, educational, and life outcomes, a broader lead-dysfunction hypothesis—that it gets into the bones of communities as it does in children and makes them brittle and broken from the inside out—is too compelling to ignore.
Now, even as the White House pursues the marginalization of the EPA, HUD, and lead-remediation programs, familiar alarms sound in places like East Chicago and in Flint, where the water is still not quite safe to drink.
The merits of the plaintiffs’ cases against HANO seem obvious in retrospect, but their battle was not destined to be easy, nor would it guarantee them better lives.
For starters, when Gambel took on the cases it was near-impossible to settle with HANO or receive any money from judgments against them, since they didn’t have any liability insurance. Plaintiffs could technically win, and often did, but since they couldn’t exactly seize a public-housing authority’s assets in cases of nonpayment, they often won big fat piles of nothing.
"When I filed that lawsuit, in hindsight I was just naive,” Gambel said. “As a young lawyer and a start-up firm, there were a lot of people asking me, ‘How are you going to do this?’”
It helped that Gambel’s work had attracted the interest of lawyers from other firms that had experience suing HANO. Among them was Joe Bruno Sr., a trial lawyer known for taking on huge cases. In contrast to Gambel, then a fledgling business lawyer at a small firm with an environmentalist streak, Bruno was television’s idea of a lawyer, and he was known even then for taking on big cases against big companies after big disasters.
At the time, Bruno was helping plaintiffs win the “Great New Orleans Train Robbery,” a multibillion-dollar judgment—later overturned for a much lower amount—against railroad company CSX for a massive chemical fire. He took on Shell Oil after a 1988 explosion at a refinery in Diamond, Louisiana, but the case was derailed by his confession that he’d paid a Shell insider $5,000 to come forward as a witness. While Gary Gambel had accidentally hooked himself a whale, Joe Bruno was a lawyer who hunted them.
Bruno had represented one of the earlier plaintiffs in a lead-poisoning suit against HANO, in which a judge handed down a million-dollar judgment that the plaintiff couldn’t collect because of insufficient liability coverage. But his approach informed the gambit the plaintiffs needed to try to be able to recoup something. In that first case, Bruno’s team had found that HANO’s private-property manager had a limited pool of liability insurance and could be successfully sued.
By the time the Billieson-led plaintiffs filed suit, HANO was run by the private-management company C.J. Brown, which had liability insurance from a few different companies. C.J. Brown was contracted by the city of New Orleans under HUD’s directive to clean up the crumbling housing developments, but their method of doing so actually made the lead problem worse and, in turn, made them potentially liable for poisoning hundred of people.
“C.J. Brown wanted to go in and renovate whole sections of development instead of constant abatement and maintenance all over,” Gambel told me, “which led to a sliver of the units getting a lot better while most of the rest got worse.”
Given that opening, the lawyers decided to take another ambitious step: creating a class-action suit representing all of the affected children and families who lived in HANO. In his softwood and leather-adorned corner office, Bruno explained to me how the lawyers built the case.
"My thinking was that if you could get an enormous judgment against them, maybe with the pressure, HUD might fund it,” he said. “And let's be realistic: Cases get settled because of pressure. The defendant believes that if they proceed to trial, they're likely to pay more money than if they settled the case."
HANO cases and suits for a raft of different issues, including lead poisoning, were so backed up that the Louisiana Supreme Court had to appoint a special judge to handle them, Judge Joe DiRosa. The first step for the team of lawyers required establishing damages to a whole class of kids, and liability on behalf of HANO, C.J. Brown, and the contractors they used.
There was clearly lead paint, not only in the housing units, but peeling in common areas like stairwells and around outdoor rails. But it turns out that paint was only one avenue by which children in HANO projects were being exposed to lead. HANO lawyers brought forward Mielke to testify as an expert witness. His research indicated that much of the lead in the inner-city’s soil near roads and highways came from leaden fumes deposited by automobiles in the decades before the stuff was banned from gasoline, although not from the home.
“In the Billieson case, I looked at it differently from the people saying it was all lead-based paint,” Mielke told me. As a crusader against soil-based lead poisoning and its connection to automobiles, Mielke said his testimony was not that the children of HANO weren’t damaged nor that they didn’t deserve recompense, but that the plaintiffs had gotten at least some of the causality wrong.
The trial court originally denied the class-action certification based on that testimony and the murky nature of the “constellation of factors” contributing to varying individual levels of lead poisoning. But on appeal, a judge found that pieces of Mielke’s testimony actually helped established culpability for HANO, because HANO was still responsible for abating and cleaning lead in the soil. “Mielke was a great guy, and he really cares about this stuff,” recalled Gambel. “And I think his testimony actually showed how bad we needed to do something.”
The appeals court finally certified as a class the children who lived in the HANO projects during C.J. Brown’s management at some point between birth and the age of 6, but still the saga dragged on. DiRosa died in 1997, and a succession of ad hoc judges was appointed by the state Supreme Court to replace him. For the next six years, Billieson et. al v. City of New Orleans languished between courts.
“We put this case together for trial over 20 times,” Gambel said.
As the case continued, the issues of lead poisoning and other environmental dysfunctions in the HANO projects continued unresolved. Even though the pressure on HANO from the lawsuit spurred a limited campaign of lead abatement in the projects, kids still showed up poisoned at doctor’s visits. For seven years after Gambel and Bruno’s team filed the lawsuit in district court, the lead levels in homes and in children’s blood remained high enough to qualify them to join the class.
As the list of plaintiffs compounded, Gambel and the other lawyers who frequently visited plaintiffs and advocated on their behalf became known to the residents of the HANO housing developments as “the babies’ lawyers,” although the people they represented stopped being babies long before the case approached resolution. Those children had children, and those children grew up in those same projects. The group of mothers who’d led the charge against HANO as young adults themselves began to watch a generation of their grandchildren grow up in their homes and choke on the same lead dust.
Billieson did what she could, even though the plaintiffs were rarely actually called to court to testify. “I did so many depositions, and it still took years and years,” she told me. It seemed to her, like it seemed to most of the HANO residents, that the cycles that kept them bound to the poisoned lands of the generations before them would never really change.
Then in August of 2005, walls of water from Hurricane Katrina buckled the Louisiana levees and destroyed everything.
A few of the places the denizens of HANO escaped still stand, walled off by barbed wire. Press Park is a ghost town of brick monoliths, with each building marked by the hand of God in a green high-water mark and by the hand of humans in sprawling graffiti, with some characters stretching over 20 feet tall. The old industrial red-brick Moton Elementary stands sentinel behind them, an eerie malevolence of ivy curtains, skittering rats, and broken windows.
I walked through Press Park one night, aided by the paths worn by the city’s famous graffiti artists. Like ruins in Pompeii, the crumbling facades of houses reveal what might have been happening on the day the levees broke. A mailbox full of crumbling letters, still sporting the names of persons departed, hangs from one of units. Lonely yellowed light bulbs still punctuate the ceilings above nurseries and well-worn living rooms. And across the fences, there are signs warning of the environmental hazards within and of the deadly Superfund site near which they stand. Press Park is a silent witness to what was left behind.
When the surging floodwaters broke through the Industrial Seaway and Lake Pontchartrain, they didn’t single out races or neighborhoods to target. The city and its layers of segregation and poverty did the job of assigning victims themselves. Housing discrimination in the city had forced generations of black residents into segregated wards and neighborhoods, often located in the areas with the highest risk for both lead poisoning and flooding.
The resulting destruction was more thorough and more devastating than any single incident of racial violence or hatred. One statistic about Katrina helps put things into context: A Brown University report showed that the most damaged areas in the city were 75 percent black, while undamaged areas were only 46 percent black. And some of the most thorough and permanent depopulation in the city came in the HANO “Big Four” projects—C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. Casey Billieson and her two boys—then teenagers—escaped the chronic horrors of Lafitte by fleeing an acute catastrophe.
Black people generally were much more likely than white counterparts to be “Katrinaed,” and only around 44 percent of them returned within a year. The black Katrina diaspora mostly bounced around cities in the South—Houston, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Birmingham, and Atlanta—and among them were most of the residents of HANO and the plaintiffs in the Billieson lawsuit, many of whom had never before left the city.
Billieson found herself in plenty of different cities across Texas and Louisiana, and other plaintiffs wound up in places like Nashville, Tennessee, or as far off as Chicago. By the time the city began a rebuild in earnest after the flood, HANO residents had been displaced to 36 states, and many were simply unreachable. Seventy-five thousand black people never returned to the city, and its strong majority of black residents has declined since.
The HANO residents who did want to return found a city that seemed intent on moving on without them. With most of their residents displaced to other cities, and with hundreds of units that had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, the city council voted in 2007 to demolish many of the HANO projects and rebuild them with a mixed-income housing system supplemented with a Section 8 private-voucher system. The stated purpose of the plan was to help fix the worst problems with racial segregation and lead-paint issues in the units.
The rebuilt units in places like the Desire neighborhood look like little slices of subdivided suburbia now, complete with swimming pools and basketball courts. But, as the wide, empty swathes of green and the patches of barren concrete foundations that surround them indicate, New Orleans simply didn’t rebuild nearly enough units, and in some places, the public-housing capacity only rebounded to 10 percent of its pre-Katrina levels.
As a result, Billieson and many of the other black folks who were “Katrinaed” simply couldn’t make it back to New Orleans proper. The vouchers they received for assistance in renting homes in mixed-income neighborhoods didn’t always work out—especially when expenses like utilities aren’t covered—and discrimination often reared its ugly head again when black renters tried to find homes in mostly white neighborhoods.
With most of their old homes demolished, and barred from the areas of New Orleans that were actually investing in recovery, many of the former HANO residents who did return were forced to live in homes in the suburbs or on the outskirts of the city, in places like the outermost reaches of Eastern New Orleans, Metairie, LaPlace, and a collection of towns along the West Bank of the Mississippi. Casey Billieson lives in LaPlace now and told me that the place is “full of people who came from where [she] came from.”
Just a few years after Katrina, New Orleans had transformed to an emblem of the reverse white flight and suburbanization of poverty seen in many American cities over the past decade. Old neighborhoods in the part of New Orleans’s black belt like Treme gentrified. And as recent research from Mielke shows, the resettlement of the city by those fortunate enough to be allowed in was aided by the floodwaters having washed away lead-polluted soil.