- nitial sampling told the agency that "floodwaters were contaminated with bacteria and lead and a variety of other materials.
- a lot of environmental sampling is showing results below federal action levels
- reiterated that residents returning to their homes should avoid direct contact with oil-contaminated sediments and should wear protective clothing. Children and pets should not be allowed into the area as they are more likely to be harmed by any contamination.
Environmental monitoring in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is telling state and federal officials that some areas present possible health problems, some appear to be clean and some need additional investigation.
"This is a natural disaster the likes we have never seen before," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. He said initial sampling told the agency that "floodwaters were contaminated with bacteria and lead and a variety of other materials."
Sediment testing around expected environmental hot spots, such as the massive Murphy Oil refinery spill in St. Bernard Parish, tells officials that there are some dangers and concerns. But a lot of environmental sampling is showing results below federal action levels. Dr. Howard Frumkin of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said "it is very hard to say in a broad brush way" whether Katrina was the environmental disaster people predicted in early September.
"There are some areas that appear to be quite clean and quite safe. There are some areas where we are concerned and some areas still need investigation," Frumkin said.
Frumkin said some health tracking in clinics and hospitals around the New Orleans area has turned up anecdotal evidence of coughing and other respiratory problems and that is "exactly what is expected." The agency expected more cases of communicable diseases, but that concern never materialized.
A lot of injuries connected to the hurricane have been reported, such as carbon monoxide poisoning from use of generators in enclosed areas and cuts from chain saws. "I wish we had better data," he said. For example, the agency can't discern the impacts of molds versus contaminated dust.
"We have more questions than answers," he said. "It is plausible that some people are having reactions to mold and other substances there," Frumkin said.
Routine air sampling doesn't measure mold, he said.
EPA has conducted sampling around five Superfund sites flooded by Katrina. The Agriculture Street Landfill in New Orleans, Southern Shipbuilding in Slidell and Madisonville Creosote Works sites "were not affected by the hurricane, Johnson said.
Testing at the Bayou Bonfouca site in Slidell showed some water contamination, but all at levels below drinking water action levels, Johnson said.
At Delatte Metals near Ponchatoula, tests showed some elevated levels of metals, but none of the area's drinking water wells were contaminated, he said.
A storage tank on the Murphy Oil Refinery in Meraux collapsed during Katrina and about 1,700 St. Bernard Parish homes were contaminated. The oil company is working on cleaning up the area, Johnson said.
Murphy has taken about 1,500 samples and EPA has independently analyzed about 10 percent of them.
Many samples show levels of oil products that exceed safe levels for residential soils, he said.
He and Frumkin reiterated that residents returning to their homes should avoid direct contact with oil-contaminated sediments and should wear protective clothing. Children and pets should not be allowed into the area as they are more likely to be harmed by any contamination.
EPA Region 6 Administrator Richard Greene said he thinks some homeowners around the Murphy refinery will want to rebuild, but he said he doesn't know whether that will be reasonable or allowable.
"We do not have answers today," Greene said. "We expect Murphy to be responsible" and clean up the contamination to meet standards, he said.