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Possible pollutants worry responder

Combination of oil refineries, chemical plants, high water and lack of power could produce technological disaster in Ike's wake.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | PORT ARTHUR, TX | September 15, 2008


"Everyone has to be careful. There are potential hazards everywhere."

—JoAnn Hale, Church World Service


It is unclear how long the water washed ashore by Hurricane Ike will linger in damaged neighborhoods, but the longer the water stays around the more dangerous it may become.

Health officials were warning survivors Sunday to avoid contact with the water, citing obvious pollutants gas, oil and other chemicals that could be seen in a film on top of the water. But it is the potential for less visible pollutants that worry Joann Hale, a disaster response specialist for Church World Service and the United Church of Christ where she specializes in response to technological disasters.

"They're facing the same sorts of situations they did with Katrina," Joann Hale, disaster response specialist for Church World Service, said. "Fortunately, I think stronger laws and stronger enforcement are in place now."

"I'm still worried, though, about the residents in those areas," Hale said. "It's scary knowing that many chemicals are in that concentrated an area. There are other concerns up and down the coast of Texas as well."

Nearly 20 percent of U.S. oil is processed in refineries in the Texas and southwestern Louisiana regions hit hardest by Ike. In addition, many related chemical and fertilizer plants are also located in the region. Most of the refineries and plants have been shut down with the region’s power failures and it may be weeks before they resume full production.

In the meantime, potentially hazardous chemicals may have been released by flood waters.

Recent upgrades at most of the refineries have ensured that the factories removed debris that can cause damage to the machinery according to an industry spokesperson. Safety valves have been installed so flows cannot be turned on accidentally by rushing water pushing floating debris from elsewhere.

Dave Diagle, deputy director of Media Relations for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed that the flooding along all of coastal Texas and many miles inland is a health hazard. Flood waters, which often mingle with sewage and other contaminants, have made drinking water unfit for consumption. He suggests residents in those areas pay attention to local and state authorities about water quality.

"Listen for water reports from authorities to find out if your water is safe for drinking and bathing," he said. "If an advisory has been issued about contaminated water, make sure to use bottled, boiled, or treated water for drinking, cooking, food preparation, and hand washing."

Diagle said the risk from chemicals and petroleum byproducts mixing with drinking water sources has been lowered by the higher standards. The risk, however, is not completely eliminated. The high winds and the resulting disbursement of debris throughout the area coupled with the loss of power to the plants raises the potential for the contaminants to spread into drinking water sources.

Hale said that, unfortunately, everyone is "in a wait-and-see mode" while search and rescue efforts are completed and while companies go into the factories to assess the damage.

"Everyone has to be careful," she warned. "There are potential hazards everywhere."

She said there are the same kind of chemical hazards that came with Katrina. There is the risk of petroleum, chemicals and other hazardous materials leaking into drinking water and mixing with the flood waters.

"We can't assume that something has happened (until they are done assessing the situation), but we can't let people go back in until we are sure nothing has happened," she said.

Wilma Subra, a microbiologist and biochemist who has volunteered with Church World Service as well as working for her own company, did extensive testing of the water in Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and found contaminant levels to be extremely high because of damage to chemical and petroleum factories and because of human waste mixing with drinking water sources.

"We were prepared for Ike, but we need to be careful," Hale said. "Drinking water could mix easily with the sewage and it could be a big health problem," she said.


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