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Don’t go in the water: Katrina’s toxic legacy

As New Orleans is slowly drained of its human population, numerous press reports describe what remains. Along with homes and possessions and, all too often, friends and family who died during the storm and its hideous aftermath, residents of the city are leaving behind what numerous press reports have described as a “toxic gumbo.”

The description doesn’t do justice to the situation.

Rescue workers, reporters and others working in the city are forced to take precautions similar to those required of workers at Superfund sites and other scenes of environmental devastation. Fact sheets released by the federal EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality last week provide a probably understated glimpse of the unholy brew covering the city and being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain to make its way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

From Louisiana’s DEQ:

  • DEQ is coordinating with EPA and availing ourselves to support they can offer
  • Emergency response personnel (21 currently housed at DEQ)
    ASPECT aircraft with aerial photography and remote sensing capabilities
    Helicopters
    Boats and crews
    Laboratory support
  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has provided a 19-member “strike team” to assist our emergency response activities.
  • We are coordinating with the Regional Response Team, LOSCO, and the Coast Guard on coastal oil spill issues.
  • We are coordinating with the Corps of Engineers on debris and solid waste cleanup and disposal issues.
  • We are coordinating with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concerning Waterford III nuclear plant and facilities with radiation sources.
  • DEQ GIS resources are assisting with aerial images, maps and georeferencing of areas of concern. Aerial images and data are being shared with our emergency response partners.
  • DEQ is working with EPA to contact various railroad companies for information on contents and status of railcars in the impacted area.
  • Outside of search and rescue, principal concerns right now are containers of large quantities of hazardous materials at the industrial facilities, derailed and submerged rail tank cars, radioactive sources, major oil spills, possible release of toxic materials in explosions and fires, and water quality in the flooded areas.
  • Look around your city or town and catalogue potential sources of substances you wouldn’t want in your water. New Orleans has all those and, because of its position as an oil and chemical industry hub, probably much more. EPA has sampled the floodwaters in a few residential neighborhoods and found dangerous levels of biological contaminants such as e.coli, along with high levels of lead.The heavily industrialized areas have yet to be tested.

    Louisiana’s DEQ anticipate serious fish kills in Lake Pontchartrain, which will also affect local bird and wildlife populations who depend on fish, as well as migratory birds who stop in for meals on their way north and south. Soil and groundwater contamination are also serious concerns.

    Although New Orleans is the focus of attention now, the entire industrialized Gulf Coast is at risk from oil spills and other petroleum and chemical industry pollutants released by the storm. When cleanup costs for what now amounts to the world’s largest toxic waste dump are added to the costs of resettling storm victims and rebuilding flattened communities in the affected states, total federal spending over the next few years will likely exceed that for the war in Iraq.

    Meanwhile, Slate Magazine’s Josh Levin, a New Orleans native, gives a taste of what it’s like to prowl the city in a rescue boat.

    Since there are no signs of life, I study the surface of the water. It smells a lot worse when you’re sitting in it than when you’re looking down at it. The stench of gasoline is so strong that my head throbs. Still, I can’t help but gaze into it. The water isn’t as static and opaque as it looked from 20 feet above. Smoky black wisps dissolve and re-form every few seconds as we glide by. The scary thing is that there aren’t any mosquitoes flitting about—if they’re afraid of this stuff, we humans have got to be seriously screwed.

    Sitting in the middle of 12-foot-high floodwater for an afternoon makes me understand what it must be like for those gloomy psychics who see destruction around every corner. An hour into the cruise, I realize that everything I look at will get bulldozed—you can’t renovate a place that’s more liquid than solid. Every time the motor revs and we lurch forward, I see another two-story home crumbling to the ground. By the end of the day, I’ve condemned the entire neighborhood—houses where friends used to live, a vet’s office, an elementary school.

    After three hours of sloshing around, there’s an inch of flood water in the boat, and it saturates my socks and sneakers. When we make landfall across the street from a Walgreens, I’m ordered to sit on the grass and take off my shoes. Soldiers line up to pour out their canteens over my tainted feet—”this is all biblical and shit,” one says—and an Army medic tosses in half an IV bag’s worth of saline solution. After I rub down with an antiseptic gel, my feet are officially clean. My gray New Balance sneakers, though, have to be retired. To keep my shoeless feet from touching the ground, a paramedic swaddles them in the first thing he sees: bright red plastic biohazard bags. I ride back to Baton Rouge with the bags crinkling around my feet and my shoes in plastic bags. The next morning, I toss them in a wind-blown garbage can and drape the red biohazard bags neatly on top.

    3 comments to Don’t go in the water: Katrina’s toxic legacy

    • And from what NPR said the other morning, Lake Pontchartrain was just be heralded as an environmental success story after years (centuries?) of being NOLA’s sewer. They were even considering opening beaches.

    • Kristen Welch

      I am doing research on the water quality in New Orleans and was wondering if you could provide me with a list of the contaminants in the water. Thank you for any help you can give!

    • Don’t believe everything you read

      What they say: Will the Gulf Coast Fish Again?Katrina’s Public Health Effects Still Unknown