Cooper site

The site where Cooper Homes once stood between West 14th and West 15th in Anniston is shown earlier this month. Cooper Homes was built in the early 1950s as public housing for black residents of Anniston.

Anniston City Councilman Ben Little is right.

“Somebody’s got some explaining to do,” he said. “These people have lived with this for all these years.”

“These people” are the former residents of Cooper Homes, one of Anniston’s longtime public housing complexes that was demolished last year. And the “this” that residents have lived with is environmental pollution -- PCBs and industrial waste -- that recent soil tests show plagues the Cooper Homes site.

Under the leadership of Director Sonny McMahand, the Anniston Housing Authority wants to reinvent public housing in the city. It’s a noble and worthwhile endeavor. But doing so requires either remodeling or replacing a majority of the aging complexes the authority operates. And replacing Cooper Homes, Anniston’s first public housing complex for black residents, with more modern options is a cornerstone of that plan.

This week’s revelation that environmental pollution fouls the Cooper Homes site is double-trouble, both for the housing authority and the city. The authority, The Star has reported, may face difficulty in securing financing and low-income housing tax credits to pay for the new complexes and housing units.

But we believe the city owns the greatest risk.

This story is in its early stages; unanswered questions remain. Did city leaders in the 1950s know the first public housing for African Americans was built atop industrial waste? Did anyone question the safety of the soil underneath Cooper Homes when Anniston was dealing with PCBs remediation during the early 2000s?

And, bluntly, there’s the terrible optics of a Southern city with a sordid history of environmental-pollution issues discovering that its most prominent public-housing complex may have exposed scores of black residents to long-term health risks.

Mayor Jack Draper, the City Council and the housing authority have no choice but to seek unbiased answers, be transparent and swift with the findings and show the city’s determination in rebuilding Cooper Homes on ground that doesn’t endanger residents. Anything less is unacceptable.

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