"The entire community is now a toxic waste dump"

The Gulf Coast is drowning in a poisonous stew, people are dying from waterborne bacteria, and federal funds have been drained by years of pro-industry policies. Katrina is one of the worst environmental catastrophes in U.S. history.

Published September 9, 2005 11:41PM (EDT)

From 500 feet in the air, Chris Wells, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, looked with dismay on the landscape pounded and then abandoned by Hurricane Katrina. As Wells flew on Wednesday above the Louisiana coastline, across New Orleans, the marshlands south of the city, and over Mississippi, nearly every tree was snapped, their limbs twisted around in a braid, the bark shredded right off the trunk. The marshland below looked as though somebody had taken a spatula and scraped away the marsh grasses, leaving a sea of mud. Aside from a number of shorebirds, and one 8-foot alligator swimming about 20 miles offshore, Wells saw no wildlife. What he did see were streaks of oil, some miles long and 200 yards wide.

"It was on any body of water of any significance," he says. Hundreds of thousands of inland acres are covered with a spotty sheen of oil. "The landscape right now is absolutely bizarre and unreal," Wells says, from his home in Lafayette, La. "It's emotionally draining. Even if nobody was hurt, it's heartbreaking to see what has happened to the environment."

Wells suspects that much of the oil has drained from thousands of boats lying at the bottom of countless bayous, canals, and the ocean. Within the impacted area are at least 2,200 underground fuel tanks, many potentially ruptured, says Rodney Mallett, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Officials also predict that thousands of cars, lawn mowers and weed-eaters are also submerged, leaking gas and oil into the waterways.

In addition, tens of thousands of barrels of oil have spilled from refineries and drilling rigs in at least 13 sites between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the coast, Katrina damaged 58 drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf, according to Rigzone.com, an oil and gas industry Web site. At least one rig has sunk and another was swept 66 miles through the gulf before washing up on Dauphin Island. It remains unclear how badly the hundreds of underwater pipelines connecting the oil to shore have been damaged.

Yet the destruction that Wells witnessed from the sky is only the most visible element of a poisonous stew bubbling in Katrina's wake. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that bacteria in the water flooding Gulf Coast areas are at 10 times the agency's standard for human health, and already four people have died from waterborne bacteria.

Although the samples are from flooded neighborhoods and not heavily industrialized zones, officials predict that the impact zone's water is laced with a slew of toxic chemicals such as lead, PCBs and herbicides. This sludge will eventually settle onto the soil and filter into the groundwater below, says Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. While it may be too early to predict the levels of total contamination, many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects or neurological problems.

With human life still hanging in the balance and people desperate for food, water and shelter, public officials have understandably placed the environment in the back seat of priorities.

Yet it's become apparent that federal and state agencies had no plans in place to deal with the environmental impact of the storm and are now scrambling to know where to even begin to address the catastrophe. What's also become clear is that Superfund, the federal till for environmental cleanup, notably for Louisiana and Mississippi, has run dry, due in large part to anti-tax and anti-regulation policies favorable to oil and chemical industries.

"Chemical spills that would normally seem horrible on their own are dwarfed by the huge scale of this disaster," says Solomon. "Right now, people quite rightly are focusing on getting food and water and shelter for the victims, but the environmental mess and contamination could haunt this area for many years to come."

Aside from oil spills, the list of other potentially toxic ingredients in the water drags on and on. The floodwaters in Louisiana alone have hit nearly 160,000 homes, most stocking shelves of household cleaning products. In piles of debris as wide as three miles along the Mississippi coast, lead paint and asbestos cling to the remnants of old buildings.

Louis Skrmetta runs a family business started by his grandfather in the 1920s, sailing tourists out to Gulf Islands National Seashore. He weathered Katrina in the back bay of Biloxi in his boat, with about 500 other ships, all trying to take shelter from the storm. Now, the 400 shrimp boats, yachts, and workboats that survived the storm are all crammed into a bayou 250 feet wide and quarter-mile long, and it's not a pretty sight.

"All I see is filthy nasty brown water," Skrmetta says. "Everyone is dumping raw sewage overboard. And this is only boats from the Gulfport area. I would imagine that every city along the coast has the same situation. It's going to be a nightmare."

In addition to raw sewage flowing from what are now makeshift houseboats, the EPA estimates that the more than 200 sewage treatment facilities in the impact zone are nearly all out of order, causing backed-up sewage to leak. Test results released Sept. 7 found that levels of E. coli greatly exceed the EPA's recommended levels. Already countless people are suffering from diarrhea. Vibrio vulnificus, a gastrointestinal organism found in the gulf's shellfish, has killed one person in Texas and three in Mississippi. Those victims had open cuts or wounds that came in contact with bacteria-laden salt water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC is also concerned about outbreaks of leptospirosis, a bacterial illness carried by farm animals, causing anything from high fever and headaches to kidney damage and liver failure. Humans contract the disease by exposure to water contaminated with the animals' urine. For those living in shelters, the agency anticipates higher rates of infectious illness. "To what extent we see any outbreaks of illness depends on if people are evacuated and provided with medical care," says CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner. "It's really important for people to leave the area if possible."

In an effort to drain New Orleans and rid it of the bacteria-laden water, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun pumping floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain, the huge but shallow lake on the city's northern border. Yet this water, as it recedes past New Orleans' highly polluted areas, is most likely laced with a frightening amount of dangerous chemicals.

From 1941 to 1986 the Thompson-Hayward Chemical Plant, near Xavier University in the center of town, packaged and mixed pesticides such as DDT, the herbicide 2,4,5-T (the main constituent of Agent Orange, which contains dioxin), and the fungicide pentachlorophenal, which also contains dioxin. While the city and federal governments launched a massive cleanup effort throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the remediation was not entirely successful: 2,600 tons of herbicide-contaminated soil reportedly couldn't be removed because it was too toxic to legally dispose of in any state, according to a 1995 article by Mark Schleifstein in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

At the Agriculture Street Landfill, soil and debris are laden with DDT, lead, asbestos, and industrial waste -- ironically, everything that was scraped from the city floor after Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965. In 1962, reports Solid Waste and Recycling magazine, "300,000 cubic yards of excess fill were removed from ASL because of ongoing subsurface fires. (The site was nicknamed 'Dante's Inferno' because of the fires.)" While the EPA eventually declared the dump a Superfund site (after the city had filled the area and built homes and a school above the infill of trash), the only cleanup the landfill underwent was the removal 5 inches of soil. A plastic barrier was put down and clean soil thrown on top.

"The New Orleans area that was flooded was an industrial area where you have all the lubricants and batteries and heavy-metal plating -- it's just hideously dangerous," says geographer Wells. "We can't wait around to test the floodwater before we pump it back into the lake -- people are already dying of disease from it -- but it's a terrible thing to do. We're going to avoid a great human disaster by doing this, but we could be creating a damn big environmental one." Forget for a moment the scenario of a toxic lake in the middle of a major American city; should a future hurricane breach the levees again, New Orleans could literally be submerged in poison.

Aside from potentially poisonous floodwaters, the hurricane likely roiled sediment from the bottoms of the lake and its surrounding canals, sediment that is the toxic legacy of the region's century-old romance with the chemical industry. William Fontenot, recently retired, spent 27 years working for the Louisiana attorney general's office, helping citizens grapple with environmental problems. His voice weary, Fontenot describes a few of the various companies that spent much of the past century dumping waste into Louisiana's waterways.

For 100 years, one such company, American Creosote, situated on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, near Slidell, treated wood to create railroad ties. In the 1970s, a fire ruptured a tank and creosote spilled onto the property and into the Mississippi River. After Coast Guard divers took sediment samples that were 8 percent creosote, the site landed on the Superfund list in 1983. Although the EPA cleaned up the property and 1,200 feet of the river, it ignored the other 6,000 feet of waterway that was devoid of any living organisms.

During the 1970s in Ponchatoula, north of the lake, the Ponchatoula Battery Co. dumped between 3 and 5 million spent lead-acid battery cases onto the ground. The waste liquid acid was directed into holding ponds that had no containment structures. Drainage with pH levels (the acidic rate) high enough to burn the skin off a person's hand bled from the facility into various ditches into Selser's Creek. This mess was also declared a Superfund site, but, says Fontenot, "when they ran out of Superfund money, the cleanup just stopped. The EPA and the state of Louisiana don't want to put too much burden on industry to clean this stuff up." He continues: "Just normal to a little rainfall has an effect on all these sites. Just the sun shining on them affects them. How do you think the storm affects all this?"

Citizens in Mississippi fear that burying toxic secrets is standard operating procedure. Clinging to the north shore of Bay St. Louis, an inlet just west of Gulfport that flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the DuPont DeLisle plant, the country's second-largest titanium dioxide maker, was slammed by Katrina. The facility produces 14 million pounds of toxic waste per year, some of which is kept at on-site landfills. From 1999 to 2003, the most recent figures available, 2.3 million pounds of the waste were planted in the company's landfill.

DuPont also operates four underground injection wells, which shoot toxic waste into the earth at a depth of around two miles. In late August this year, a jury awarded $1.5 million to the first of nearly 2,000 local plaintiffs who claimed that dioxins from DuPont, released into the nearby air and water, caused their cancers.

Hurricane Katrina's storm surge overflowed DuPont's 25-foot-high levee, and the site was buried under 7 to 9 feet of water. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, a leaking pipe (now repaired) released a pound of chlorine gas, and rail cars containing coke, ore and chloride were tossed on their side. Despite this storm surge -- the same one that flattened most of the bay -- DuPont claims that not a drop of toxic waste escaped its on-site landfills. "Our current assessment is that damage to the plant did not affect the environment and community due to the storm surge," the company said in a statement to its employees.

"It's ridiculous for DuPont to claim that," says Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club organizer in Ocean Springs, Miss., in an e-mail. "What planet are they from? It is very distressing to think of all the poor people going to destroyed or flooded houses, cleaning them out, their kids in tow, without a clue about the poisons they may be exposed to in the cleanup."

Before Tuesday, no state or federal agency had been out to the DuPont site, according to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (the agency and the EPA have since visited the facility). "When industry has a major release, they have to notify us, and they haven't done that, so we can assume they've had no major problems down there," says Robbie Wilbur, the agency's public affairs specialist. "In general, I haven't heard of any major environmental problems, but a lot of facilities couldn't even get to them if they wanted. There's too much debris."

Although the Chevron Oil Refinery, at Pascagoula, Miss., which processes 325,000 barrels of crude oil a day, is also underwater, Wilbur says that Chevron has been "taking on a lot of responsibility themselves." As of Tuesday, the state environmental agency had yet to conduct water- or air-quality tests anywhere in the region. Wilbur says he doesn't know of any other state or federal task force working on the state's environmental problems or cleanup.

Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality, on the other hand, began to document oil leaks the day after Katrina. They took water samples earlier this week that they expect back any day. They're working with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers on a plan to treat sludge after the water subsides. One preliminary idea is to treat the toxic soil and use it to rebuild the coast.

Despite the variety of plans, the agency is overwhelmed, says communications director Rodney Mallett, a native of Louisiana. "I have no idea about how many oil refineries are impacted. I don't know about the Superfund sites. This is something like no one has ever seen. Nobody ever planned for anything like this."

The EPA has no estimates on how long recovery will take because it doesn't have a full picture of the environmental impact. Only three of New Orleans' 148 pumps are currently working, and it could take 80 days before the floodwaters drain from the city and its outlying suburbs into Lake Pontchartrain. Only then, following water and soil quality tests, can a comprehensive cleanup picture emerge.

Yet finding money to clean up the environmental contamination won't be easy. The Superfund bank account, money that would normally be used to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites that are "an act of God," is essentially broke. The tax on chemical and oil industries that pays for Superfund cleanups expired in December 1995. According to the most recent statistics, a 1998 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and health advocacy agency, $4 million for cleaning up hazardous waste sites goes uncollected every day the tax is not restored.

In fact, every year for the past decade congressional representatives have attempted to reauthorize the polluter payments, and every year the bill has been voted down. The Bush administration has consistently opposed the fee. Without the inflow of industry's money, taxpayers have instead funded the Superfund budget. Today, most of the $1.2 billion currently appropriated from the general revenue fund has already been committed to other sites around the country.

"The Superfund is supposed to be our safety net when Mother Nature is at fault," says Lois Gibbs, director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit group based in Falls Church, Va. "These fees could make a large dent in the costs of cleanup." Gibbs poses the question that geographer Wells also asked, one that the nation will likely spend the next several years trying to answer. "The entire community is now a hazardous waste dump. How do you clean up an entire city, an entire region?"

By Rebecca Clarren

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Ore.

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