Contaminants a growing concern

The threat of negative environmental fallout after Hurricane Katrina is very high.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana | September 20, 2005

"The contamination is hard to quantify."

—Derek Malek-Wiley

The threat of a huge negative environmental fallout in the South after Hurricane Katrina is very high, say some environmental groups.

To Derek Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club in Louisiana, the health risks from the contaminated water, soil and air are not being taken seriously enough.

"The (Environmental Protection Agency) monitoring is inadequate," said Malek-Wiley, who is also a resident of New Orleans. "The concern is that this is not the first time we've seen something like this happen - this is like Sept. 11."

Residents and workers in New York City are still dealing with health issues due to the toxins in the air after Sept. 11. Community groups are still arguing with the EPA over proper clean-up methods for buildings that the community organizers say were never cleaned properly in the first place.

"Four years down the road - are we going have an outbreak of disease traced back to this?" said Malek-Wiley, continuing the comparison to post-Sept. 11 issues. "There are a whole range of public health issues that are not being adequately addressed. It's tough because there's a desire to get back home and get back to business, but it's so strong that environmental and health concerns are being put to the side."

The picture being painted by the EPA is one of a contaminated region. More than 19,400 "orphan" containers of household hazardous waste have been collected. Some 44 oil spills have been found by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Officials from the EPA say they are doing all they can. The EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality are monitoring air, water and soil contamination around New Orleans. Last week the EPA collected air samples around New Orleans to test for pollutants like benzene, toluene and xylene. According to an EPA news release about the sampling, "These screening data were evaluated against the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) air short-term health standards in order to provide an initial assessment of air quality. The screening results indicated that chemical concentrations in most areas are below ATSDR health standards of concern."

The EPA sampling also found higher levels of those chemicals in the air near the oil spill at the Murphy Oil facility in Chalmette, and the release states that "These initial results represent the beginning of extensive sampling efforts and do not represent all air conditions throughout the area. As this is a dynamic situation, general conclusions should not be made regarding air safety based on results from this snapshot of data."

That statement in itself angers Malek-Wiley, who says it points to the exact problem. "The contamination is hard to quantify. The EPA talks about its sampling program, but when you take a sample it's just from that time and place. What we need is a movie of what's going on throughout New Orleans."

He is also concerned that there is no sampling plan talking about how the contamination hazards are modified by being trapped in sediment. Another news release from the EPA discusses 18 sediment samples taken last week in New Orleans:

"Preliminary results indicate that some sediment may be contaminated with bacteria and fuel oils and human health risks therefore exist from contact with sediment deposited from receding flood waters. E. coli was deteced in sediment samples but no standards exist for determining human health risks from E. coli in soil or sediment. The presence of E. coli, however, does imply the presence of fecal bacteria and exposure to sediment should therefore be limited if possible."

The same release states that some semi-volatile organic compounds such as diesel and fuel oil "were detected at elevated levels and may persist in the environment," and then lists numerous possible health effects from coming in contact with or breathing in such compounds - such as peeling skin and increased blood pressure. Long-term effects from breathing in fuel vapor include kidney damage and lowering the blood's ability to clot.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on Sept. 15 that it "would be coordinating technical support for federal responder and federal contractor safety and health during cleanup and recovery operations along the Gulf Coast of the United States."

Yet under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) recently activated Worker Safety and Health Support Annex of the National Response Plan, that leaves state and local governments responsible for their own workers during the cleanup. According to a U.S. Department of Labor document on the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex:

"Private-sector and Federal employers are responsible for the safety and health of their own employees. State and local governments are responsible for worker health and safety pursuant to State and local statutes, and in some cases...Worker Protection. This responsibility includes allocating sufficient resources for safety and health programs, training staff, purchasing protective clothing and equipment as needed, and correcting unsafe or unsanitary conditions."

An OSHA spokesperson said local and state governments can apply to OSHA and FEMA for money to support the cleanup if it is necessary. Yet people like Malek-Wiley remain worried about a unified response from all agencies involved. Will the emergency workers and the public be properly protected?

"The scale of the environmental health catastrophe just keeps growing," he said. "I think there are a lot more questions than answers as far as what people's risks are going to be and how this will impact folks. Should there be a warning for pregnant women in the city? People and health officials don't know. The guys down there working to clean it all up - what kind of training do they have and what is their protective gear? Are they just wearing jeans and waders? There are all sorts of occupational exposures we need to worry about. There are so many unknowns that I think we need to be better safe than sorry."

As far as moving back into the affected areas across the Gulf Coast, another issue residents must face is drinking water. The EPA and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals are assessing and monitoring the drinking water systems. According to the EPA, more than 490 drinking water systems are now operational and 26 drinking water systems are operating with boil water advisories.

For those with wells, the potential contamination may be a daunting foe. In Mississippi, the state department of environmental quality is urging all residents in flooded regions to have their wells tested for contamination.

The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) is issuing well disinfecting guides to local governments and the public. Cliff Treyens, the director of public awarness for the NGWA, said residents need to be vigilant and remove all contaminated water from their wells.

"When flooded water gets into the well, the well then becomes a pathway for that contaminated water to get into the aquifer," he said. "It's like a sponge, and then it's there."

That is why it is so important for residents to pump water from their wells until the water is clear, Treyens said. He added that almost all methods of killing the bacteria within wells also include chlorinating the entire well system of one's residence.

Treyens said he's not as worried about contaminated soil affecting groundwater. "The ground actually filters the water. So by the time the water reaches an aquifer, if it's sufficiently deep, the ground has filtered out and broken down a lot of the bacterial elements and even chemical contaminants if it's deep enough."

Many NGWA members are signing up via a national professional services volunteer registry to go into the hurricane affected regions and assist the public and local governments, added Treyens. "We'll also be looking at other potential responses for our organization."

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