- At this point, we're not sure what's out there,"
- The testing will continue quarterly for the next year, he said.
- The cleanup covers 140,000 square miles of waterways and coastal zones, including nearly 6,400 miles of zigzagging shoreline.
GARRY MITCHELL, Associated Press Writer, September 23. 2005
Hurricane Katrina's deadly debris-scattering slam into the Gulf Coast left messy fuel spills, leaky sunken vessels and toxic chemical threats across a broad, battered shoreline.
The multi-agency task force attempting to carry out the cleanup faced a storm of new obstacles with the arrival of Hurricane Rita, which spread more debris as it churned in from the Gulf of Mexico.
But even before Rita, scientists said they have never encountered such a catastrophe as Katrina. "At this point, we're not sure what's out there," said marine scientist Russell Callender, director of NOAA's Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment program.
Next week, he said, NOAA and its federal partners will begin sampling and analyzing waters and sediments from Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Mississippi Sound and the outfalls of the Mississippi Delta, looking for signs of contamination.The testing will continue quarterly for the next year, he said.
"We really don't have a good picture at this point in terms of how big the problem might be," Callender said.
Sheer numbers tell part of the story: The cleanup covers 140,000 square miles of waterways and coastal zones, including nearly 6,400 miles of zigzagging shoreline. But David Dorian, an Atlanta-based environmental engineer at EPA, says the most dangerous elements are not necessarily the big ones, such as submerged, leaking vessels.
One particular hazard: chlorine cylinders found in the debris dislodged from water treatment plants. "Chlorine is quite deadly," he said. Some cylinders had washed up in residential areas, posing a threat to returning residents and contractors arriving to help in the recovery.
As storm debris piles grow, inspectors will mark the ones with hazardous materials, Dorian said, so they can be separated out before collection. Lt. Cmdr. Jim Elliot of the Coast Guard's Gulf Strike Team said at least 400 sunken or damaged vessels in Alabama and Mississippi have been assessed and photographed in the wake of Katrina. The Mobile-based team is trying to track down their owners, and a similar effort based in Baton Rouge is underway for Louisiana waters. Most of the vessels targeted for removal have been in hard-hit Mississippi - at Pass Christian, the Industrial Canal of Biloxi and the Pascagoula River area.
In Alabama, Elliot said 72 fishing vessels in Bayou La Batre were damaged or submerged by Katrina. Ten of those vessels in the fishing village were being pulled out of the water because of fuel leaks. Elliot said federal officials try to find the owners before taking charge of a vessel in distress.
"If it's a hazard to human health or the environment, we will take care of the situation, pump out the oil and take off the hazardous material," he said. If it's cost-effective for the government, the vessel also could be removed from the water, taking care to protect the environment.
If there's a vessel stranded in a wetland, for example, before they dredge out a channel to get the boat out, all options must be weighed. There are some environmental permit issues involved in salvaging a vessel.
"That's why we're contacting owners to see what their intentions are," Elliot said.
The Gulf Strike Team, organized more than 30 years ago, has handled at least 575 cases of hazardous materials and oil pollution in Alabama and Mississippi caused by Katrina.
Alabama Department of Environmental Management officials on the team said they closely monitored 73 public water systems - all disrupted to some extent by Katrina. As of Sept. 13, all of those systems were operating again.
In Louisiana, environmental threats have included 7.4 million gallons of oil discharged from tank storage plants. Coast Guard officials said 7.1 million gallons of it had been recovered - either contained or naturally dispersed. Nearly 800 contractors responded to the 11 major and medium spills in Louisiana.
The number of sunken vessels in Louisiana waters was not immediately available.
Besides the Coast Guard, the cleanup team includes the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as state environmental agencies.
Commercial and private contractors also have been hired for the cleanup, with the biggest challenges in Mississippi - a large above-ground fuel tank that contained 1.7 million gallons of gasoline, a pool chemical manufacturer and hospitals' biological wastes.
In Alabama, Elliot said, Katrina-damaged fishing vessels caused the most problems.
The Katrina cleanup comes on the heels of another. Elliot recalled that it took about eight months to clean up after Hurricane Ivan struck last September.