- A batch of new EPA results from air and water samples indicate that the region was not turned into an environmental disaster zone after Hurricane Katrina inundated hundreds of miles of coast and flooded New Orleans
- EPA says bacteria levels in water along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were so low that swimming is now safe. The agency says air sampling in Louisiana has shown no problems and the storm did not cause any serious contamination at five Superfund sites around New Orleans.
- State and federal environmental agencies have been criticized for downplaying the dangers caused by the hurricane.
From polluted air to oil spills, the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast region still has many environmental problems to tackle, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator said on Thursday. Stephen Johnson said that the region is dealing with mounds of debris, mold, contamination from oil spills, broken infrastructure and reports of poor air quality in Mississippi. “This is a natural disaster unlike anything we've seen before,” Johnson said.
A batch of new EPA results from air and water samples indicate that the region was not turned into an environmental disaster zone after Hurricane Katrina inundated hundreds of miles of coast and flooded New Orleans when it hit on Aug. 29.
EPA says bacteria levels in water along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were so low that swimming is now safe. The agency says air sampling in Louisiana has shown no problems and the storm did not cause any serious contamination at five Superfund sites around New Orleans.
There are a few trouble spots, according to EPA.
In Meraux, sediment samples where 1 million gallons of crude oil spilled from a refinery storage tank revealed high levels of arsenic, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, diesel and oil-related organic chemicals. The agency has told people to wear protective clothing while in the area and to keep children and pets away. Johnson said it is too early to say when the area will be cleaned up.
In Mississippi, air sampling between Oct. 7 and 19 at the Stennis Space Center and in Pascagoula found dangerous chemicals.
High levels of formaldehyde, or methanal, were found on three days near the county health department in Pascagoula. The chemical compound, which takes form as a pungent gas, often comes about with combustion, for example from forest fires or automobile exhaust. EPA said preliminary results from newer samples show that the formaldehyde levels are coming down.
In western Mississippi, high levels of acrolein were found at a monitor at Stennis on two days. The chemical, which is mostly used to make other chemicals, can enter the atmosphere when trees, plants, gasoline and oil are burned. Since then, the agency said, preliminary results show the chemical has fluctuated in intensity.
The agency said it is trying to figure out where the chemicals are coming from at both sites.
State and federal environmental agencies have been criticized for downplaying the dangers caused by the hurricane.
Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that has sought to empower communities near oil and chemical plants, said EPA has done little to inform residents in Meraux about the hazards of cleaning up their oil-contaminated homes.
“There's just no information and it's EPA's job to let us know,” Rolfes said.
Richard Greene, EPA's regional administrator in Dallas, said state and federal officials used checkpoints, Federal Emergency Management Agency distribution points, agency web sites and local radio to get word out about the risks of entering the oil spill zone.
Gary Miller, a chemical engineer and air expert with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said state and federal agencies have done a good job sampling the hurricane-hit region.
EPA has been reluctant to declare the region environmentally dangerous because the agency does not want to stop the rebuilding effort, he said.
“There are millions of dollars at stake here, and the last thing EPA will want to do is get in front of that locomotive,” Miller said.
He said the long-term health and environmental effects are still playing out. “This is an ongoing experiment,” he said, “and unfortunately the humans are the guinea pigs here.”
For example, he said, EPA samples show that there are high levels of lead and arsenic in sediment in New Orleans. Officials, he said, will need to be very careful about what they do with the contaminated soil.
On The Web:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency test results from Hurricane Katrina: http://www.epa.gov/katrina/testresults