Sept. 29, 2005 – The recent pounding of Southern states by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caught most Americans off guard. Yet climatologists predict that global warming may do far more to roll out the welcome mat for future ocean storms.
Nevertheless, in the face of these increasingly intense hurricanes, few if any politicians or agency officials are talking about how to prepare for what might be one of the most troubling impacts: the fallout of the American governmentâ€™s century-old romance with the chemical industry.
For more than 100 years, the Gulf Coast â€“ with its cheap labor and lax environmental regulations â€“ has been home to a slew of former and current industrial facilities. In just the area affected by Katrina, there are more than 200 hazardous-waste repository and handling sites, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Rita had the potential to impact more than 160 chemical plants.
When such facilities have closed, instead of fully remediating sites, federal and state governments have mostly behaved like impatient children, throwing the mess under the bed.
As hurricanes pound this contaminated landscape and floodwaters flow through these heavily industrialized zones, officials predict a slew of toxins such as lead, the pesticide PCB, and herbicides will lace water in the impact zone.
The Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s testing of soil and air samples in New Orleans has been cursory so far, but the process has already turned up high levels of diesel and fuel oils in the sediment deposited by the floodwaters. FEMA reports that over 8 million gallons of oil have spilled in the impact zones; by comparison, Alaskaâ€™s infamous Exxon Valdez spill dumped 11 million gallons.
FEMA reports that over 8 million gallons of oil have spilled in the impact zones; by comparison, Alaskaâ€™s infamous Exxon Valdez spill dumped 11 million gallons.
The EPA warns that short-term contact with the fuel oils can cause "itchy, red, sore or peeling skin, nausea, eye irritation, increased blood pressure, headache, light-headedness, loss of appetite, poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating." While long-term exposure can lead to "kidney damage and lower the bloodâ€™s ability to clot."
The EPA also reported finding elevated levels of lead and arsenic, but said so far the amounts were not enough to "immediately" cause human health concerns. Still, testing to ascertain long-term health risks have yet to be completed.
Eventually, where it has not already, this sludge will settle onto the soil and filter into the groundwater below, explains Gina Solomon, a medical doctor and senior scientist at the environmental advocacy group 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.
"Contaminated soil is now in the water that is spreading all across the land," said Solomon. "Weâ€™re talking about [potential] problems with groundwater and drinking water supplies and contaminants building up in shellfish. The environmental mess and contamination could haunt this area for many years to come."
As hurricanes pound this contaminated landscape and floodwaters flow through these heavily industrialized zones, officials predict a slew of toxins will lace water in the impact zone.
William Fontenot spent 27 years working for the Louisiana attorney general's office helping citizens grapple with environmental problems, before retiring recently. He knows this map of potential poison all too well. When asked to describe some of the companies that have dumped toxic waste into Louisianaâ€™s Waterways, Fontenot, his voice weary, offered a list that drags on like a limping dog.
One such company, American Creosote, was situated on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, near Slidell. Beginning in 1900, the company treated wood to create railroad ties. In 1970, a fire ruptured a tank and a hazardous chemical called creosote spilled onto the property and into the Mississippi River.
Coast Guard divers took sediment samples that were 8 percent creosote, and in 1983 the site landed on the Superfund list, a nationwide roster prioritizing the countryâ€™s most polluted places. 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 Company 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 acidic concentrations 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, said 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."
Even completely dry, New Orleans itself was a living museum of lousy environmental cleanup.
He continued, "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?"
Even completely dry, New Orleans itself was a living museum of lousy environmental cleanup. Now floodwaters have compounded the problem, probably many times over.
For example, from 1941 to 1986 the Thompson-Hayward Chemical Plant, near Xavier University in the center of town, packaged and mixed pesticides such as DDT, as well as the herbicide 2,4,5-T -- the main ingredient in Agent Orange -- and the fungicide pentachlorophenol, the latter both containing dioxin.
While the city and federal governments launched a massive cleanup effort throughout the 1980s and â€™90s, the remediation was not entirely successful: 2,600 tons of herbicide-contaminated soil reportedly could not be removed because it was too toxic to legally dispose of in any state.
Nearby, 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. 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 of a 5-inch layer of soil. The agency put down a plastic barrier and threw clean soil on top.
"I have worried for years about whatâ€™s in those sites," said Daryl Malek-Wyley, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club in New Orleans. "Now that all of that stuff has gotten into the floodwaters and into [peopleâ€™s] houses, I worry for everyone. It adds insult to injury. There are so many bad things out there for these people to deal with, this is just one more bad thing we donâ€™t need."
Yet finding money to clean up the environmental contamination will not be easy. FEMA officials say that while they are funding short-term environmental cleanup, such as oil spills, any long-term problems would be turned over to agencies such as the EPA.
But the EPAâ€™s Superfund bank account â€“ money that would normally be used to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites â€“ is essentially broke. A casualty of several years of passive-aggressive de-funding, the Superfundâ€™s evisceration was no more accidental than most of the "spills" and other acts of environmental degradation it was founded to address.
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 US Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and health advocacy organization, $4 million for cleaning up hazardous waste sites goes uncollected every day that the tax is not restored.
In fact, every year for the past decade a few lawmakers have attempted to reauthorize the polluter payments, and every year a congressional majority has voted the bill down. The Bush administration has consistently opposed the fee. Without the inflow of industry 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," said Lois Gibbs, director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit group based in Falls Church, Virginia. "These fees could make a large dent in the costs of cleanup." Then Gibbs posed the question 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?"