Toxic gumbo

The EPA is failing to protect the Gulf Coast's homebound citizens from Katrina's poisons.

Published October 7, 2005 3:35AM (EDT)

"On behalf of Mayor C. Ray Nagin and the city of New Orleans, welcome home!" the mayor announced Sept. 25 in a public statement. "You are entering the city of New Orleans at your own risk. Standing water and soil may be seriously contaminated; avoid contact." Limit your exposure, the mayor continued, "to airborne mold and wear gloves, masks and other protective materials to protect yourself. You must supply your own protective equipment."

"I'll give you 10 bucks for your boots," says Donna Harney, a fourth-grade teacher, to a reporter wearing knee-high black waders. Harney is standing on the oil-caked driveway of her best friend's house on Jacob Drive in Meraux, just southeast of New Orleans. A headache-inducing stench fills the air. A faint waterline rings the house, just inches below the top of the front doors. A chocolate-brown line covers the bottom quarter of the house. That's the oil line.

It forms a bathtub ring around a row of 20 or so modest brick houses that stretch up and down the street. Most look salvageable from the outside, but that illusion is dispelled the moment you step inside. Behind every front door is a toxic junkyard, where the remains of each family's possessions, rearranged by floodwaters into garbled piles -- and infested by weeks of mold and rot -- are coated in a putrid mud, thick with crude.

"Oil is everywhere," says Harney with disgust. "It's encrusted on the vehicles. It's on the houses." It's also on Harney's blue-and-white sneakers. She says that every store within 100 miles is sold out of rubber boots. Driving to Meraux, Harney says, "I cried on my way in, I'm not ashamed to say."

An umbrella of environmental laws, including the Superfund law, gives the Environmental Protection Agency considerable authority -- and in some cases the responsibility -- to ensure messes get cleaned up right. And the mess in southern Louisiana, as EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson himself admits, is "the largest natural disaster we've faced."

But Louisiana environmentalists, who for decades have battled oil companies and government agencies to improve the human and natural health of their polluted state, say EPA's tests are insufficient and its health warnings inadequate. "They read like 'Hints From Heloise,'" says Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. National critics stress that EPA failed to comprehend the pollution that arose after the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and may be repeating the same mistakes in the Gulf Coast.

"That entire area has to be cleaned up before people move back in," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "You could have tens of thousands of people getting seriously ill."

To describe the EPA's response to Katrina, "the two adjectives I would use are 'understaffed' and 'overwhelmed,'" says Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at the Tulane University Law School. In past years, Houck says, federal and state agencies have been "primordial" in their failure to monitor pollution released from industrial facilities along "Cancer Alley," the swath of the Mississippi River that winds from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, dotted with 136 petrochemical plants and six refineries, all belching dense airborne toxins.

The oil spill in Meraux spouted from Murphy Oil Corp. Located in the working-class St. Bernard Parish, it's bordered by a farm of giant white circular tanks, where oil is stored for processing. During Katrina, one of the tanks ruptured, dumping raw crude into floodwaters, sewers and swimming pools. Murphy Oil says the spill is between 10,000 and 20,000 barrels. The U.S. Coast Guard puts it at 19,500 barrels, or 800,000 gallons. Today the oil and mud have dried and formed a cracked black layer of frosting on lawns and driveways.

Katrina caused at least 40 oil spills from Gulf Coast refineries and storage tanks, dumping more than 8 million gallons of crude into southern Louisiana towns, wetlands and shorelines. The Murphy spill is not the biggest. That honor goes to the one in Plaquemines Parish, where 3.7 million gallons of crude leaked from tanks.

The Exxon Valdez polluted Alaska's Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of oil. But mopping up crude in the variegated Louisiana landscape will be far more difficult than it was in Alaska, where the oil was confined to one place. To date, according to the Coast Guard, 70,000 barrels of oil have dispersed into marshes and evaporated, while 55,000 barrels remain to be cleaned up. The fate of 2,000 underground tanks of petroleum products remains unknown.

Oil is not the only toxin that saturates Louisiana and threatens the health of residents returning to New Orleans and adjacent parishes. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality reports that muck covering the area is contaminated with human waste and bacteria, including E.coli, a fecal bacterium. It estimates that between 1,000 and 5,000 railroad cars have been damaged by Katrina, including some carrying chlorine or sulfuric acid. The EPA says water may be polluted by arsenic and lead from paint and the batteries of 350,000 submerged cars. Shattered homes and businesses are contaminated with asbestos and mold.

Currently, with the EPA at the helm, state and local crews are trolling Louisiana's streets and waterways in trucks and boats, conducting water, soil and air tests. The EPA is posting the results on its Web site, accompanied by guidelines for returning citizens. It advises them to wear gloves, goggles and respiratory protection. It tells them to open windows to avoid explosive gases and possible carbon monoxide poisoning. Remove and discard wet material that may have mold or bacteria, it says, and avoid mixing household cleaners that can produce toxic fumes.

But environmentalists and EPA staffers say that environmental agencies are not conducting adequate and comprehensive tests, meaning that people are returning to the Gulf Coast without sufficient information about health hazards. Ultimately, the decision to allow people to return to the Gulf Coast resides with state and local authorities like Mayor Nagin. On its Web site, the EPA defines its role as merely helping decision makers make an informed decision. EPA deputy administrator Marcus Peacock told a House panel Sept. 29 that the EPA was responsible for "preventing, minimizing or mitigating threats to public health, welfare, or the environment."

But critics say the agency should be more active in preventing people from returning to the Gulf Coast. "The EPA has not done a thorough assessment of the contamination of [St. Bernard] parish or any other parishes that have been contaminated," says Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst at the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. On Sept. 12, EPA Science Advisory Board member Richard Gilbert stated that the EPA's current plan of sampling 24 affected areas was "very limited in scope" and didn't address the full spectrum of contamination throughout the area. "I expect that questions will be asked about whether the data are applicable to non-sampled flooded parts of Louisiana that are close to chemical plants or other potential sources of pollution," he said.

Appearing Sept. 29 before a House subcommittee on the environment, Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it was the EPA's moral and legal obligation to warn and protect the nation's citizens. Yet based on NRDC's research in the Gulf Coast, he said, he was concerned that EPA was both delaying its test results and doing a poor job of communicating the results to people who didn't have Internet access. "Unfortunately, EPA apparently has decided to 'punt' to local authorities the responsibility to protect citizens' health in the wake of the massive Katrina-related oil and hazardous chemical releases," he said.

Long-term risks from the pollutants now being found in and around New Orleans include cancer, birth defects, spontaneous abortions and asthma. The EPA has also underplayed the threat of mold. Health experts say trillions of mold spores, exacerbated by the late summer heat, could sicken a large population of children, people with asthma, older residents, and people with weakened immune systems, the New York Times reports.

Houck says some illnesses might not show up for years or may never be identified by health authorities. Katrina wiped out many impoverished communities in southern Louisiana, and often indigent people cannot afford to go to doctors. "They are going to get sick and they are not going to know why," Houck says.

Despite the destruction and health dangers, the EPA has not taken measures to prevent people from returning to southern Louisiana. And Nagin seems intent on bringing people back fast. "There is a huge tension between redevelopment as soon as possible and cleanup as well as possible," Houck says. Jean Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, says the agency would like to proceed with more caution, but allowing people to return to their homes "is not really our decision. We can advise the mayor, but it is his decision whether or not he wants to bring people back in. That is not something we have control over."

The EPA is sending mixed messages. It recently issued a press release stating that levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, are "slightly elevated" around Murphy's Oil USA. But the actual test results, buried in fine print, reveal that benzene levels are 45 times higher than the state standard. Some of the EPA data has confused Nagin himself. At a Sept. 19 press conference, Nagin said an EPA report to him on the danger of returning to some neighborhoods was confusing. "We also looked at the [EPA] report as it relates to flooded areas," Nagin said. "And it was a very clever attorney who wrote the report. So it basically bounced on both sides of the issue and didn't really tell you much."

While the mayor may be prematurely opening the gates to New Orleans to get business humming again, people are driving past the grime and gunk -- and health warnings -- for the simple reason that they want to see their homes again and save what they can. "In America, your home is your castle, and now it's a contaminated castle," says Darryl Malek-Wiley, Louisiana environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. "People deal with that in all sorts of different ways. Some go into denial." And some, like Harney, who uses roofing tiles that have flown off her friend's house as steppingstones across the sludge on the driveway, go into shock.

Harney looks disgusted as she steps through the front door. The duplex is rented by Edie Labarriere, a single mother and Harney's best friend, who lived here with her two sons, ages 12 and 9, before Katrina. Since the hurricane, the family has been living with Harney at her house in Harahan, La. Just now, the Labarrieres are on their way here to salvage what's left of their things.

From the outside, the duplex doesn't look too bad. A yellow X is spraypainted on each of the two front windows, indicating that it's been checked out by search-and-rescue. The number 0 on both X's indicate that no one's been found, dead or alive.

Inside, three wooden kitchen chairs are lodged at crazy angles. They are stuck in a tar pit of thick, black, rancid goo, which is peppered with random household items: a clothes hanger, stray pieces of paper, and what was once a maroon raincoat. There's nowhere to step that isn't black mire, which holds everything within its oily grasp.

In the backyard, the children's bikes sit encrusted in filth. "I guess we won't have to take their bicycles home," she sighs. A hammock, ripped from its tree, lies plastered to the backyard fence, which now leans into the neighbor's yard. Near the back door, the muck on the ground grows smoky gray, then a sickly green. "Ewww," she says. "I gotta go in there, people. God, this stuff stinks. Am I a good friend or am I a good friend?"

Soon after Katrina, St. Bernard Parish president Henry Rodriguez dubbed the area "another Love Canal." A few weeks later, says parish spokesman Steve Cannizaro, Rodriguez consulted with the EPA, "and they told us the area was not toxic, and we decided everyone has a right to see their home, and so we let them back in."

Many citizens and activists in St. Bernard Parish, also home to a ExxonMobil refinery, wanted to return home but didn't trust the EPA. In late September, 180 residents of the parish met at a Holiday Inn in Baton Rouge, seeking information about pollution in their neighborhood. Everyone was full of questions: "What is EPA doing?" "How big was the spill?" "What is Murphy going to do?" In fact, St. Bernard residents are so suspicious of the local oil companies that over a year ago they persuaded the parish to hire an independent environmental engineer.

But today, says Kenneth Ford, president of St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality, the engineer is nowhere to be found. "We're disappointed," says Ford. "Without his scientific proof that the parish is not contaminated, no one should be allowed in right now."

Cannizaro replies that the parish is comfortable with the EPA's advice to allow people to return. What's more, he says, the parish of 68,000 residents "is one step away from being financially destroyed; businesses are flat on their ass." People need to return and start buying and building again. "You can't operate a government without taxes," he says.

Canvassing the parish in late September is a four-man crew from Greenpeace. They have spent weeks living in a Cruise America R.V. with an aluminum boat strapped on top, documenting the environmental destruction on the Gulf Coast. They have taped the letters "TV" on the windshield of their Jeep to make passing military and police security checkpoints easier. In weeks of surveying the damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Greenpeace guys attest that they've seen some hideous sights, like an offshore oil rig in the Gulf that's been ripped from its moorings and turned upside down, leaving a five-mile-long oil slick in its wake.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist for Greenpeace, says that 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in Mississippi have been so damaged they're no longer able to perform their ecological function as a natural water filter and habitat to birds and wildlife. In Port Arthur, Texas, they saw a refinery so damaged by Hurricane Rita that two of its storage tanks had imploded. But the neighborhood surrounding Murphy Oil is by far the worst that they've encountered.

"This community could have rebuilt but Murphy Oil killed it," says Mark Floegel, a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace. "It would have been bad. But the oil spill makes it so much worse."

Currently, the company is working with the Coast Guard and the EPA to mop up the spill. Dump trucks, steam shovels and hydraulic pumps scoop up contaminated soil around the tank and pump the oil into tankers. The workmen are dressed in heavy boots and yellow hazard pants. One tells the Greenpeace crew flatly: "Nobody here is going to answer any of your questions."

The Murphy spill was such a direct hit to the neighborhood that the company is already facing two class-action lawsuits brought by lawyers on behalf of St. Bernard residents. Another suit is being brought by the owners of the Paris Palms Shopping Center in Chalmette for the damages it suffered. In response, Murphy has announced that it will give $5 million to hurricane relief to the area through the United Way, the local school system and the parish itself.

The oil spill is clearly the final indignity after a brutal storm. But environmentalists fear that the real story isn't getting out.

"So far, from what we've seen, we don't really have any reason to believe that what we're being told is really the whole story," says Hocevar. "If you don't look, there's nothing to see," he continues. "We have an administration that has been cutting back on the EPA investigative enforcement." According to a 2004 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, the number of civil lawsuits filed by the federal government under the Bush administration dropped 75 percent from the number in the last three years of the Clinton reign. Eric Schaeffer, the former head of the EPA enforcement office, who oversaw the project, told the Los Angeles Times, "If you're a big energy company, you're basically on holiday from enforcement."

Greenpeace isn't conducting independent testing of the air or groundwater, but other groups are. Under normal circumstances, a small nonprofit, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, distributes air-sampling kits to residents who live near refineries and petrochemical plants so that they can independently monitor what's being spewed into the air around them. But post-Katrina, the group sent a professional sampling team from Dynamac Corp. into St. Bernard Parish to take 10 soil samples. The results are due soon. NRDC also plans to work with local environmental groups to conduct a battery of independent tests.

Senate Republicans, led by Environment and Public Works Committee chairman James Inhofe -- who has declared that global warming is a hoax -- have introduced a bill that would allow EPA to waive clean water and air laws during the cleanup. The EPA itself is drafting a plan that would allow the agency to waive state regulations on smog emissions or pollutants pouring out of coal plants. In response, Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said: "It's bad enough that big polluters want to exploit the tragedy to pollute more, but it's even worse that Washington Republicans want to help them do it."

A draft for the EPA plan states that for the agency to act there must be "an Act of God or another event that could not have reasonably been foreseen or prevented." "They call it an act of God," says Malek-Wiley of Louisiana's Sierra Club. "But I was just in St. Bernard Parish and it was heartbreaking to see that people's lives are now coated with a film of oil from Murphy. God didn't put the oil tanks in those people's backyards."

At a Sept. 14 press conference, EPA administrator Johnson defensively stated, "Everyone is looking to EPA for what are the results and are these done in a scientifically appropriate and sound way? We're doing that. We're not trying to be bureaucratic. We want to make sure the results are ones that we can all stand by."

Critics say they don't believe the EPA is trying to cover up the widespread destruction and health hazards in southern Louisiana. But they have little faith in the federal agency's ability to assess the grievous problems and be forthright with the public. As we know, it's not first time the EPA has faced this issue.

The collapse of the Twin Towers four years ago blanketed lower Manhattan in a dust of asbestos, lead, glass fibers and concrete. Within days, then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman was assuring New Yorkers that the air was safe and encouraged them to go back to work at Wall Street. "I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe," Whitman said in an EPA press release a week after the towers fell.

But an EPA inspector general's report in August 2003 concluded that Whitman did not have sufficient data to support her calming tone. The report says the White House "convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" about the environment at Ground Zero. Critics have long speculated that the White House wanted to get New York's financial motor, Wall Street, up and running again -- pollution be damned.

To date, nobody knows what the environmental impact has been on the thousands of people, including pregnant women, who lived and worked near Ground Zero. A study by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York showed that nearly 80 percent of 9,000 first responders may have suffered some lung ailments and half still had those problems a year after the attacks. Several studies are under way on the possible long-term effects on pregnant women and infants living near Ground Zero.

Twelve Manhattan residents sued EPA last year alleging that the agency may have endangered the health of tens of thousands of workers and residents in lower Manhattan. That case is pending.

Pressure to open New Orleans, says Kaufman of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, is as intense today as it was on Wall Street soon after Sept. 11. "The appearance of 'back-to-normal' gets local industry going, then real estate, and so on," he says. "It's the same issue today, except that the locations and contaminants are different, and people talk with a different accent."

A week after the attacks in New York, the EPA instructed citizens to use a wet rag or wet mop to clean their apartments, though in some cases the dust may have been contaminated by asbestos. On Sept. 14, 2005, the EPA instructed citizens returning to New Orleans to "wear gloves, goggles" and use "respiratory protection" when handling material that may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen.

The two messages are "eerily similar," New York Democrat Rep. Nadler wrote in a letter to President Bush on Sept. 21. "I am deeply concerned that many of the same mistakes made by EPA in response to 9/11 are being repeated on the Gulf Coast."

"This is a potential catastrophe," Nadler says today. "We don't want two catastrophes. We had maybe a thousand killed from the hurricane. You want another thousand killed because of the environment? Maybe five thousand?" Nadler wants to see the EPA conduct a more thorough environmental assessment of the city, rather than just through its spot samples. He also wants EPA to ensure that private companies are held liable for contamination.

That wish, according to environmentalists, shows few signs of coming true. Both the EPA and the Louisiana DEQ have signaled that they will rely on regulated industries to police themselves and tell the government if there has been some major spill. The EPA administrator during the Clinton administration, Carol M. Browner, once announced an initiative to crack down on illegal pollution along the Mississippi River because some companies could not be trusted. Browner at the time said there was an "unprecedented amount of illegal pollution in the Mississippi River drainage." Asked at the Sept. 14 press conference about leaks or damage from companies that line the drainage, or Cancer Alley -- Johnson said he was "not aware" of any problems. "The companies are going to do their own assessments, so we're all working very cooperatively to try to do an assessment."

Today, more than a month after Katrina's wrath, taking inventory of the wholesale environmental destruction remains premature -- for both the EPA and the activists. "We are still in the assessment stage in a lot of this," says Kelly of the Louisiana DEQ. "The problem is so monumental that nobody has dealt with anything like this before."

As she steps gingerly through the muck in the Labarrieres' backyard, Harney is cheered when she finds a crocheted picture that spells "Labarriere." The hanging is a gift she'd bought for the family and promised Edie's 9-year-old, Andrew, she'd try to recover. She carefully extracts the cream-colored crochet from its glass frame, thinks about trying to salvage the smudged pane, and decides against it. She folds up the crochet carefully and puts it in her pocket. Taking a long, panoramic look at the surrounding debris, her cheer vanishes. "You can't live in this place," she says. "You can't live down here."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Benjamin

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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