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"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.

By Rebecca  Clarren

Sept. 9, 2005  |  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

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   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

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

"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

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

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,
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?" ++

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