Sunday, November 20, 2005

Katrina's Chemical Legacy

Could the initial fears that the flood waters of were a toxic gumbo be overblown, as later reports seek to suggest?Is the government keeping the results of air, water and soil tests from the people of ?

There were dire initial predictions about the result of flood waters mixing with the latent pollution in any large American city. A University of Florida professor suggested here that pollutants that typically contaminate urban runoff would be concentrated in the standing water that covered the city for weeks.

"What we see in New Orleans is that when you put a lot of water in contact with the urban environment, all the potential contaminants that stayed around in that environment are now back in the water;definitely, to our horror," Professor John Sansalone said.

And in a widely quoted story in the days right after the city was flooded, Environmental Protection Agency expert Hugh Kaufman said not only were the floodwaters dangerously polluted, he suggested that the federal government was suppressing the information.

This story was quickly squelched by government assertions that the initial reports were overblown, and a search of Google News finds little coverage following the reports of early September.

The American Chemical Society rushed out a report in early October, based on research at Louisiana State University, stating the flood waters "were similar in content to the city's normal storm water and were not as toxic as previously thought." This report was picked up my the major media.

MSNBC did cover a hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 6, where the same concerns were expressed, and ran another story Nov. 9 discussing environmentalists concerns.

In the first story, senator's questioned whether the people of Louisiana were being given the information they needed before returning. The EPA report in question stated:
Samples of floodwater and sediment in the Gulf Region have shown high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, [heavy] metals, fuel oils, arsenic and lead. Air monitoring has shown high levels of ethylene and glycol. EPA said the results are snapshots that can quickly change.
Ongoing results of EPA testing can be found here.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network didn't merely rely on EPA and other government results. They hired their own testing group, which found "community members should not have been allowed to return to the areas where they could come in contact with the contaminated sediments." The results can be found here.

In early November, the Dallas Morning News reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning "one of the biggest environmental cleanups ever attempted: scraping miles of sediment laced with cancer-causing chemicals from New Orleans' hurricane-flooded neighborhoods."

Some areas were clearly contaminated by flood waters. The Times-Picayune reported earlier this month that 1,700 homes in the vicinity of the Murphy Oil Co. refinery in St. Bernard Parish are unsafe to enter without protective gear.

Other areas may also suffer from incidental release of toxins by or into the flood waters. The Agriculture Street Landfill is a 95-acre Superfund site on the National Priorities List of highly contaminated sites requiring cleanup and containment.
Houses and buildings that were constructed in later years directly atop parts of the landfill.

Residents report unusual cancers and health problems and have lobbied for years to be relocated away from the old contaminated site, which contains not only municipal garbage, but buried industrial wastes such as what would be produced by service stations and dry cleaners, manufacturers or burning. This area was among those flooded by Katrina.

Another flooded neighborhood plagued by chemical residue from the past in Treme, just north of the French Quarter. Neighborhood activist Randall Mitchell told the Louisiana Weekly newspaper in 2004 "they should be saying to the people of Treme that cancer is pandemic in your neighborhood."

No news reports discuss the impact of the flooding of Treme, which has a former pesticide plant and a number of dry clearing sites.

The real question is this: if the floodwaters were not as toxic as EPA asserts, why is the Corps of Engineers proposing to move tremendous volumes of topsoil and residue? What is Katrina cough, which plagues nearly everyone who has returned to the city? Is the government about to repeat the mistakes of Ground Zero in Manhattan, where the health risks were suppressed while thousands toiled at the site to remove the debris and search for the dead?

The health recommendations of the National Resources Defense Council at their Katrina site, which includes recommendations that people wear respirators in the city and plastic chemical suits while working in previously flooding buildings, is disturbing.

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