The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

EPA Under Fire for Inaction on Katrina Cleanup

by Jessica Azulay

Mar. 16, 2006 – Environmental and civil rights groups petitioned the federal government yesterdayto clean up contamination released when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged insufficiently secured chemical stockpiles, submerged fuel-filled cars and stirred-up urban waste.

The organizations said the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a "legal and moral" obligation to clean up toxins in New Orleans. They cited analysis of government and independent testing in their case for immediate action.

"It's been six months since Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, and the EPA has not lifted a finger to clean up the toxic mess that threatens the health of returning residents," Hillary Shelton of the NAACP said in a statement to the press yesterday. "This is a scandal of major proportions."

In fact, the EPA reports that it has helped clean about 100 school laboratories and collected hazardous-waste materials left street-side by returning residents, though the Agency has not indicated that its clean-up efforts went beyond those activities.

Louisiana and federal environmental agencies have assured returning residents that they have generally found no "unacceptable long-term health risks" associated with the two storms. But last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council released an analysis of EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) testing data that contradicts that rosy outlook.

"It is stunning that the state's environmental agency can look at these results and say there's no problem," said Dr. Gina Solomon, a scientist who conducted the analysis for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a press statement that accompanied its release.

The analysis compared government test results to federal and state standards for triggering further investigation or cleanup. For its comparison, the environmental group focused on arsenic, lead, diesel fuel and benzo(a)pyrene, a toxin found in soot and petroleum products.

According to the NRDC, 30 percent of the governments’ samples exceeded state levels for further evaluation or cleanup. About 95 percent of the samples exceed the much stronger federal guidelines.

"Arsenic may be so widespread in the New Orleans area because of past use of arsenic based pesticides, trash incineration, leakage from industrial sites and the use of building materials pressure-treated with chromium-copper arsenate," wrote the scientists. "Alternatively, the arsenic may have been in the sediment at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain and distributed throughout the city with the floodwaters."

But, they said, "regardless of where the arsenic came from, the flooding spread it on the surface of the ground, where people can easily touch it, breathe it or get it in their eyes and mouths."

The studies also found lead in 5 percent of the sediment samples at levels unacceptable by LDEQ guidelines, while 28 percent of the samples exceeded EPA standards.

The report also said that 91 percent of the samples it analyzed from Orleans Parish exceeded LDEQ guidelines for diesel fuel.

"In the majority of the city, districts with high levels of diesel fuel contamination were also found to have correspondingly high levels of benzo(a)pyrene," wrote the researchers. They noted that around the former Agricultural Street Landfill site in the Bywater District, "some of the highest levels of benzo(a)pyrene – in some instances more than 50 times the LDEQ soil cleanup level – were found"—likely the result of contamination from burned materials.

In a press statement yesterday, Vernice Miller-Travis of the National Black Environmental Justice Network said: "New Orleans residents in the poorest sections of town lived closer to toxic industrial sites, so it's no surprise that's where the highest contamination levels are. These people have to clean up their neighborhoods on their own. They have been fighting for environmental justice for years and are still getting nothing from the federal government but false assurances that everything is okay."

Louisiana authorities have responded by saying the testing was biased to find sites with likely high concentrations of toxins, so could not be extrapolated to whole areas.

In a February 2 letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council, LDEQ Secretary Dr. Mike McDaniel wrote: "It is important to recognize that chemical concentrations in soil vary from location to location, even within a small residential area." McDaniel stated that because exposed persons are likely to move about, the average concentration in an area is best representative of their level of exposure and should be used when determining health risks.

Average and Maximum Arsenic Levels by District

But according to the NRDC analysis, several areas in the New Orleans area had average contamination levels higher than accepted state standards. For instance, average arsenic levels from the samples taken in Mid-city, Lakeview, Gentilly, Bywater, and New Orleans East exceeded DEQ levels for investigation or cleanup.

In their letter to the EPA yesterday, groups like the NAACP, Oxfam America, ACORN and the National Black Environmental Justice Network reiterated demands that the Agency finally clean up New Orleans.

"We urge you to ensure that the federal government conduct a careful and prompt clean-up of the toxic chemicals and particularly the hot spots of toxic contamination in Greater New Orleans and all Gulf Coast communities," they wrote, "specifically low-income areas and communities of color in order that all of God’s children are protected from environmental threats and health hazards."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the March 16, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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