- Hurricane Rita piled more than 1,700 acres of debris in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, including hundreds of containers that could be filled with as much as 350,000 gallons of hazardous materials, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- A prized national wildlife refuge that has effectively become a toxic dump
- Rita’s storm surge pushed the remnants of Holly Beach and other coastal towns into the refuge as well as storage tanks ripped from dozens of oil and gas facilities in the storm’s path.
LAFAYETTE — Hurricane Rita piled more than 1,700 acres of debris in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, including hundreds of containers that could be filled with as much as 350,000 gallons of hazardous materials, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The report, by Research Planning of South Carolina, concludes if work does not soon begin to remove the hazardous materials, the refuge “will be at significant risk of chemical and physical damages for decades.”
“We are looking at a prized national wildlife refuge that has effectively become a toxic dump,” said Evan Hirsche, chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of groups that push for more funding of the federal refuge system.
Rita’s storm surge pushed the remnants of Holly Beach and other coastal towns into the refuge as well as storage tanks ripped from dozens of oil and gas facilities in the storm’s path.
Much of the debris in the refuge is a mix of housing materials and dead vegetation, which can suffocate marsh plants and disturb natural water flow.
Of greater concern are the estimated 759 containers that could contain anywhere from 115,000 to 350,000 of hazardous liquids and gases, according to the report.
The containers — likely filled with such substances as oil, cleaning solvents and other industrial supplies — range from 10,000-gallon tanks to 35-gallon drums.
The low estimate of 115,000 gallons of hazardous material assumes that on average each container is filled to 25 percent capacity, while the high estimate of 350,000 gallons assumes the average container is at 75 percent capacity.
The report, based on aerial photography and satellite images, does not include any containers that might have sunk into the marsh.
“It is likely that there are significant numbers of hazmat debris items buried in the debris piles not currently visible,” the report states.
A lack of funding has frustrated efforts to remove hazardous debris from the 124,500-acre refuge, a coastal haven for waterfowl and shorebirds.
“A lot of that has been left there, because it takes particular skills for hazardous removal,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie.
Early estimates for the cleanup of hazardous materials in the Sabine refuge are at “$10 million plus,” MacKenzie said.
He said the Fish and Wildlife Service has its hopes pinned on a $132 million package proposed by the Bush administration to fund cleanup and rebuilding on refuges throughout the southeast damaged by hurricanes Rita, Katrina and Wilma.
The funding requires congressional approval and includes money for work on 61 refuges or other Fish and Wildlife Service facilities.
“The onus now is really on Congress to step up to the plate,” Hirsche said.
MacKenzie said the $132 million would be “a real shot in the arm” for the hurricane-damaged refuge system along the Gulf Coast.
Less extensive hazardous waste cleanup work is needed in nearby Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, MacKenzie said.
He said hazardous containers have been found in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, both near New Orleans, but no formal studies of hazardous debris have been carried out at those refuges.
“I think Sabine is just the tip of the iceberg, the most compelling example,” Hirsche said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been removing hazardous material containers tossed about by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the EPA is not performing cleanup work on federally owned lands, such as refuges.
In areas outside of the refuge in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes, EPA teams have recovered about 112,000 gas and liquid containers since November, said Chris Ruhl, who is helping coordinate EPA’s effort in southwest Louisiana.
The containers recovered so far in Cameron and Calcasieu include 7,371 55-gallon drums, 2,295 propane tanks and 1,100 containers larger than 55 gallons, Ruhl said.