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- The Bush administration was accused Thursday by senators in both parties of minimizing health hazards
- Samples of floodwater and sediment in the Gulf Region have shown high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, metals, fuel oils, arsenic and lead.
- Though EPA officials have warned of serious health hazards from the region's floodwaters and sediment, they haven't taken a position
Lack of warnings likened to 9/11 air safety notices
JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration was accused Thursday by senators in both parties of minimizing health hazards from the toxic soup left by Hurricane Katrina, just as they said it did with air pollution in New York from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
More than a month after the storm, Environmental Protection Agency officials said 1 million people lack clean drinking water in New Orleans. About 70 million tons of hazardous waste remains on the Gulf Coast.
Samples of floodwater and sediment in the Gulf Region have shown high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, 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.
Though EPA officials have warned of serious health hazards from the region's floodwaters and sediment, they haven't taken a position on New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's aggressive push to reopen the city.
"EPA may not be providing people with the clear information they need," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "EPA should be clear about the actual risks when people return to the affected areas for more than one day."
A week ago, on a visit to the Gulf Coast, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson stopped short of judging Nagin's plan to allow certain New Orleans residents and business people home. Johnson said it created numerous potential health concerns, and the agency is "very concerned about the opening of those parts of the city."
Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also were skeptical of post-Katrina work being done by EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The committee's chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed skepticism about the two-page government handouts on environmental and public health risks that EPA helped compile.
"It bothers me a little bit," Inhofe said. "How many people are going to see the report?"
EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock said thousands of copies are being delivered door-to-door, at relief centers and other public places.
Peacock did acknowledge "room for improvement" in handling the Katrina cleanup and recovery. Agency workers first helped save 800 people's lives, then shifted to contaminant monitoring before focusing on long-range cleanups. "We've been through a sprint, and now we're staging a marathon," he said.
Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., called the government's response to Katrina "apparent chaos."
Some recalled the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, when the White House directed EPA officials to minimize the health risk posed by the cloud of smoke from the World Trade Center collapse.
Within 10 days of the attacks, EPA issued five news releases reassuring the public about air quality without testing for contaminants such as PCBs and dioxin.
It was only nine months later — after workers cleaning up the debris and residents of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn exhibited respiratory ailments — that EPA could point to any scientific evidence, saying then that air quality had returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.