- authorities expressed increasing confidence in recent days that the region successfully skirted the nightmare scenario: a New Orleans forever marred by tainted soils, foul waterways and unexplainable health maladies.
- The storm highlighted chemical problems and health issues that the city had lived with for decades.
- the 46 locations across the metro area identified as potential toxic hot spots offer a significant exception to government claims that the region is generally safe. Almost all are in residential areas.
A litany of environmental and health unknowns hangs over the region more than six months after Hurricane Katrina, from 46 potential hot spots of contamination and the continuing cleanup of 8 million gallons of spilled oil, to health care workers raising the alarm over a spike in Legionnaires' disease.
Nevertheless, authorities expressed increasing confidence in recent days that the region successfully skirted the nightmare scenario: a New Orleans forever marred by tainted soils, foul waterways and unexplainable health maladies. Instead, state and federal environmental agencies and public health officials depict a region grappling with problems already present on Aug. 29.
This theory rejects the popular image of Katrina as culprit, tearing through chemical depots and unleashing the contents of tens of thousands of gas tanks to stir up the widely publicized "toxic gumbo." Rather, it suggests the storm highlighted chemical problems and health issues that the city had lived with for decades.
For instance, findings of elevated levels of lead, arsenic and the petroleum byproduct benzo(a)pyrene are being chalked up largely to New Orleans' history as an urban area, according to state and federal environmental officials and some outside scientists.
The lead could have come from lead paint or be the remnants of decades of leaded gasoline use; the arsenic, from common herbicides; and benzo(a)pyrene, from vehicle traffic, according to officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Look, nothing is completely risk-free, and that includes the level of chemical contamination in New Orleans. It wasn't before the storm and it isn't now. It's a fact of life in many cities," said Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta, which is advising federal agencies on their storm response.
Skeptics, from independent researchers to environmental and social activist groups, say such sweeping characterizations gloss over complications caused by the storm. Floodwaters could have brought to the surface lead that had been buried for decades, reviving the risk of human exposure, according to experts from several universities.
Also, the 46 locations across the metro area identified as potential toxic hot spots offer a significant exception to government claims that the region is generally safe. Almost all are in residential areas.
Similarly, the threat of a rise in potentially fatal Legionnaires' disease, which often is spread by water, was rejected outright by state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard as "urban legend." Yet several doctors in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish claim to have witnessed firsthand a sudden spike in cases. They say a medical system left in disarray after hospitals closed and hundreds of doctors relocated could easily miss the trend.
Even if their warnings pan out, the doctors who first raised the issue, William LaCorte, an internist at Touro and East Jefferson hospitals, and Jesse Penico, an infectious disease specialist at East Jefferson, said it is primarily doctors who need to be on the lookout for the disease, not the public at large.
The implications of what is in the region's soils have a much broader sweep.
The contaminants still under scrutiny were found across flooded residential areas of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Some were just above health risk standards; others exceeded the standards by five times or more. Benzo(a)pyrene and arsenic are known carcinogens, and lead exposure can damage the nervous system, with children particularly at risk.
"There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. If there's soil that's elevated (for lead), I'm not happy if there are people living around that soil," said Felicia Rabito, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "I don't think the pre- and the post-storm question is so important as what is the current situation. We need to look at that as, 'Where do we live and play?' "
Yet with federal emergency spending limited to storm-related damage -- and the state hobbled by a perpetual cash-flow problem -- Katrina's role in any contamination is a pivotal issue in how it would be addressed.
Tom Henning, chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's environmental task force, said calls to clean up chemical contamination, regardless of its origin, ignore the recovery's significant limitations.
"Wouldn't it be a good time to do these things? Practically, if you had no constraints on money, it would be," Henning said. "Money is the problem."
But state and federal officials are not the only ones holding the purse strings for the recovery, said John Casbon, president of First American Transportation Title Insurance. He said the nationwide firms that underwrite mortgages and home insurance policies remain skittish about backing the rebuilding. What they want, Casbon said, is a better picture of what new flood maps will look like and whether contamination could become a liability in the future.
"This is really all about markets and the tolerance for risk. There is really a very small tolerance for risk in the lending world," he said. "There's no politician that's going to decide who's going to repopulate these areas. It will be done by risk management within the insurance industry. If we don't know whether the soil has any kind of contaminants in it, whether the soil has to be raised before you can even build on it, then insurance companies become very noncommittal about coming back into those areas."
In summing up the region's post-hurricane environmental issues, Louisiana Secretary of Environmental Quality Mike McDaniel made clear his agency has little appetite for diving into problems that predate the storm.
"It is what it was," he said of the New Orleans region, suggesting the city's contamination issues are little changed since before Katrina. "The more we look at it, the more we see what was already there before Katrina. . . . The facts just overwhelmed the fantasy."
The exception, McDaniel and others said, is the million-gallon crude oil spill at the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish. That was the most severe of nine major spills after Katrina, totaling more than 8 million gallons.
Most of the spills occurred in lightly populated rural areas or coastal marshes. But about 1,800 homes and businesses in Meraux and neighboring Chalmette were fouled by the Murphy spill, according to the EPA. About 75 percent of the spill has been recovered, according to the Coast Guard, one of several agencies overseeing the cleanup. Murphy spokeswoman Mindy West said the company had scrubbed down about 600 home interiors and 1,000 exteriors through last month.
A one-square-mile area was affected by the spill, and whether those neighborhoods will ever rebound is unclear.
Aside from that case, McDaniel said thousands of tests performed on soil, air, water and living organisms such as fish have turned up contamination in only a small fraction of cases.
That has not quelled a running dispute between government agencies and scientists, environmental groups and others pushing for a thorough cleanup of tainted soil. One reason for the disagreement is the difficulty of pinpointing the risk posed by the chemicals in question.
With water contamination, determining risk is relatively easy: Drinking a given quantity of chemical-laced water equates to a quantifiable health risk. But for soil, scientists also must factor in how likely a person is to be exposed to the soil and for how long. That encompasses whether the soil is from a highway median or in a back yard, in a commercial or residential area, in a neighborhood full of children or one with 9-to-5 workers.
Out of about 800 soil and sediment samples collected by the EPA and the DEQ between September and late November, the number posing a possible health risk has been narrowed to 46 locations. None are said to pose a short-term health risk. An investigation for long-term risk is ongoing.
For lead, that includes all sites with levels in excess of 400 parts per million, the baseline for health dangers. For arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene, it includes all sites with levels that pose a greater than 1 in 10,000 chance for a person to develop cancer based on 30 years of exposure.
Not included in the latest round of sampling were more than 100 sites that had shown elevated levels of diesel range organics, chemicals that could have come from the tens of thousands of vehicles flooded when 80 percent of New Orleans was inundated. DEQ toxicologist Tom Harris said those generally degrade within a year, so they do not pose a long-term risk.
In New Orleans, the potential hot spots include 33 locations with elevated lead, arsenic or benzo(a)pyrene in the Lower 9th Ward, Mid-City, Uptown, Bywater, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and Lakeview. Five locations around the Metairie Country Club in Jefferson Parish are under scrutiny for elevated arsenic or lead levels. Four sites in St. Bernard are being probed for lead and three for arsenic. And a site in Buras in Plaquemines Parish is being looked at for possible benzo(a)pyrene contamination.
Between Feb. 16 and 22, soil samples were collected in a 500-foot radius around each location. Combined, that amounts to almost 830 acres under scrutiny, or the equivalent of about 300 to 375 city blocks. Results should be known in two or three weeks, said EPA scientist Jon Rauscher. He said additional potential hot spots could develop as the agency continues sampling sediments.
DEQ officials said the results of the samples will be averaged to determine whether entire neighborhoods contain toxins or whether contamination is limited to a single spot. Because the initial findings of contamination were biased to look for problems, with EPA officials saying they searched out the worst-looking storm sediments they could find, Harris said he expected the latest round of tests to show lower levels of contamination.
Steven Presley, a Texas Tech University toxicologist whose own soil tests have turned up high levels of lead and arsenic levels in the city, said he attempted to persuade federal regulators in recent months to remediate all sites that showed high levels of toxins, to no avail.
"It seems like it would be a good opportunity. If the concentrations are there, then let's remediate it," Presley said. "I was told the immediate concern is not on the contaminated soil right now. The immediate concern is the cleanup and removal and reconstruction. And if problems develop later, then they will be addressed."
Presley declined to identify which agencies or federal officials made the comments.
Sam Coleman, regional director for the EPA's toxic waste cleanup division, said he could not respond directly to Presley's claim. But he said his agency's involvement in New Orleans did not end in December, when the EPA agreed to a broad statement drafted by McDaniel's office that said the region was generally safe for return.
"When you talk to scientists and engineers, you always get a lot of hedging," Coleman said. "In general, there's no long-term health effects, but the reason we go back and look at these locations is (that) something there has caused us some concern to go back and look further. And as we look further, we'll be able to go back and make long-term decisions."
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Information about chemical contamination, broken down by ZIP code, is available on the DEQ's Web site, www.deq.louisiana.gov. An alternate view is available through the Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org.
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Matthew Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3784.