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An environmental disaster in New Orleans

An Environmental Disaster in New Orleans

An Environmental Disaster in New Orleans
September 6, 2005

A film of oil is visible in this aerial picture of flooded New
Orleans. Courtesy of NOAA

Katrina environmental issues “almost unimaginable”
By Jim Loney
Tue Sep 6, 3:18 PM ET

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) – Hurricane Katrina left behind a
landscape of oil spills, leaking gas lines, damaged sewage plants and
tainted water, Louisiana’s top environment official said on Tuesday.

In the state’s first major assessment of the environmental havoc in
southern Louisiana, Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Mike
McDaniel said large quantities of hazardous materials in damaged
industrial plants, the danger of explosions and fires and water
pollution were his main concerns eight days after the storm struck.

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  • Preliminary figures indicate 140,000 to 160,000 homes were flooded and
    will not be recovered, he said. “Literally, they are unsalvageable,”
    he said.

    He said it would take “years” to restore water service to the entire city.

    “It’s almost unimaginable, the things we are going to have to deal
    with,” he said.

    Crews have found two major oil spills, one of 68,000 barrels at a Bass
    Enterprise storage depot in Venice and another of 10,000 barrels at a
    Murphy Oil facility in Chalmette, McDaniel said.

    But huge amounts of oil also oozed from cars, trucks and boats caught
    in the flood.

    “Everywhere we look there’s a spill. It all adds up,” he said.
    “There’s almost a solid sheen over the area right now.”

    High-level radiation sources, including nuclear plants, have been
    secured, and authorities were trying to determine the status of rail
    cars in the area as well as searching out large caches of hazardous
    materials in industrial plants.

    Although there is a disease risk from contaminated water in the
    streets of New Orleans, McDaniel said it was too early to call the
    stagnant liquid a “toxic soup.” State and federal agencies had begun
    quality testing.

    “I’m saying that’s a little bit exaggerated,” he said. “To say it’s
    toxic, it sounds like instant death walking in it. Let’s get some
    better data.”

    Independent experts have said the New Orleans flood water, may cause
    environmental damage as it flows from the city to Lake Pontchartrain
    and the Mississippi River.

    More than 500 Louisiana sewage plants were damaged or destroyed,
    including 25 major ones. There were about 170 sources of leaking
    hydrocarbons and natural gas, officials said.

    Katrina damaged large areas of wildlife habitat but it was too soon to
    assess the long-term impact, McDaniel said.

    “One thing about nature, it’s resilient,” he said. “Nature will recover.”

    Few choices to rid New Orleans of poisoned water
    By Jim Loney
    Tue Sep 6,10:19 AM ET

    BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) — The toxic brew of chemicals and
    human waste in the New Orleans floodwaters will have to be pumped into
    the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain, raising the specter of an
    environmental disaster on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, experts say.

    The dire need to rid the drowned city of water could trigger fish
    kills and poison the delicate wetlands near New Orleans and the Gulf
    of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi. (Full story)

    State and federal agencies have just begun water quality testing but
    environmental experts say the vile, stagnant chemical soup that sits
    in the streets of the city will contain traces of everything

    “Go home and identify all the chemicals in your house. It’s a very
    long list,” said Ivor van Heerden, head of a Louisiana State
    University center that studies the public health impacts of

    “And that’s just in a home. Imagine what’s in an industrial plant,” he
    said. “Or a sewage plant.”

    Gasoline, diesel, anti-freeze, bleach, human waste, acids, alcohols
    and a host of other substances must be washed out of homes, factories,
    refineries, hospitals and other buildings.

    In Metairie, east of New Orleans, the floodwater is tea-colored, murky
    and smells of burnt sulfur. A thin film of oil is visible in the

    Those who have waded into it say they could see only about 1 to 2
    inches into the depths and that there was significant debris on and
    below the surface.

    Experts said the longer water sat in the streets, the greater the
    chance gasoline and chemical tanks — as well as common containers
    holding anything from bleach to shampoo — would rupture.

    Officials have said it may take up to 80 days to clear the water from
    New Orleans and surrounding parishes.

    Van Heerden and Rodney Mallett, communications director for the
    Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, say there do not appear
    to be any choices other than to pump the water into Lake Pontchartrain
    or the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, a key
    maritime spawning ground.

    “I don’t see how we could treat all that water,” Mallett said.

    The result could be an second wave of disaster for southern Louisiana,
    said Harold Zeliger, a Florida-based chemical toxicologist and water
    quality consultant.

    “In effect, it’s going to kill everything in those waters,” he said.

    How much water New Orleans holds is open to question.

    Van Heerden estimates it is billions of gallons. LSU researchers will
    use satellite imagery and computer modeling to get a better fix on the

    Bio-remediation — cleaning up the water — would require the time and
    expense of constructing huge storage facilities, considered an
    impossibility, especially with the public clamor to get the water out

    Mallett said the Department of Environmental Quality was in the
    unfortunate position of being responsible for protecting the
    environment in a situation where that did not seem possible.

    “We’re not happy about it. But for the sake of civilization and lives,
    probably the best thing to do is pump the water out,” he said.

    The water will leave behind more trouble — a city filled with mold,
    some of it toxic, the experts said. After other floods, researchers
    found many buildings had to be stripped back to concrete, or razed.

    “If you have a building half full of water, everything above the water
    is growing mold. When it dries out, the rest grows mold,” Zeliger
    said. “Most of the buildings will have to be destroyed.”


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