Dear EarthTalk: What have been the most significant environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?
—Samantha Gray, Tacoma, WA
Perhaps the longest-lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina was its environmental damage that, in real terms, has mainly to do with public health. Significant amounts of industrial waste and raw sewage spilled directly into New Orleans neighborhoods. And oil spills from offshore rigs, coastal refineries, and even corner gas stations have also made their way into residential areas and business districts throughout the region.
Analysts estimate that seven million gallons of oil spilled throughout the region. The U.S. Coast Guard says that much of the spilled oil has been cleaned up or "naturally dispersed," but environmentalists fear that the initial contamination could devastate the region's biodiversity and ecological health for many years to come, further devastating the region's already ailing fisheries, once the economic lifeblood of the area.
Meanwhile, flooding at five "Superfund" sites (heavily polluted industrial sites slated for federal cleanup), and the wholesale destruction along the already infamous "Cancer Alley" industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have only served to complicate matters for clean-up officials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers Katrina the biggest disaster it has ever had to handle.
Household hazardous wastes, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals also created a witch's brew of floodwater that quickly seeped down into and contaminated groundwater across hundreds of miles. "The range of toxic chemicals that may have been released is extensive," says Johns Hopkins University environmental health sciences professor Lynn Goldman. "We're talking about metals, persistent chemicals, solvents, materials that have numerous potential health impacts over the long term."
According to Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, environmental regulations in place to prevent the types of discharges that occurred during Katrina were not enforced, making what would have been a bad situation much worse. Unchecked development throughout ecologically sensitive parts of the region put further stress on the environment's ability to absorb and disperse noxious chemicals. "Folks down there were living on borrowed time and, unfortunately, time ran out with Katrina," Kaufman concludes.
To date, recovery efforts have focused on plugging leaks in levies, clearing debris and repairing water and sewer systems. Officials cannot say when they will be able to concentrate on longer-term issues such as treating contaminated soil and groundwater, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun a Herculean effort to physically remove tons of contaminated sediment left behind by receding floodwaters. Meanwhile, financially strapped state and local agencies are slowly cleaning up or removing contaminated buildings, many of which harbor mold and viruses that can still make people sick.
But just as some of these longer-term remediation projects are getting started, the Gulf Coast is battening down the hatches for what promises to be another whopper of a hurricane season this summer and fall, fueled in part by increasing ocean temperatures due to global warming.
Dear EarthTalk: Do fireworks celebrations cause any significant pollution?
—David Hiebert, Scottdale, PA
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the fireworks displays that go on around the U.S. every Fourth of July are still typically propelled by the ignition of gunpowder—a technological innovation that pre-dates the American Revolution itself. And the fall-out from these exhibitions includes a variety of toxic pollutants that rain down on neighborhoods from coast to coast, often in violation of federal Clean Air Act standards.
Depending on the effect sought, fireworks produce smoke and dust that contain various heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and other noxious chemicals. Barium, for instance, is used to produce brilliant green colors in fireworks displays, despite being poisonous and radioactive. Copper compounds are used to produce blue colors, even though they contain dioxin, which has been linked to cancer. Cadmium, lithium, antimony, rubidium, strontium, lead and potassium nitrate are also commonly used to produce different effects, even though they can cause a host of respiratory and other health problems.
The chemicals and heavy metals used in fireworks also take their toll on the environment, sometimes contributing to water supply contamination and even acid rain. Their use also deposits physical litter on the ground and into water bodies for miles around. As such, some U.S. states and local governments restrict the use of fireworks in accordance with guidelines set by the Clean Air Act. The American Pyrotechnics Association provides a free online directory of state laws across the U.S. regulating the use of fireworks.
Of course, fireworks displays are not limited to U.S. Independence Day celebrations. Fireworks use is increasing in popularity around the world, including in countries without strict air pollution standards. According to The Ecologist, millennium celebrations in 2000 caused environmental pollution worldwide, filling skies over populated areas with "carcinogenic sulphur compounds and airborne arsenic."
Not usually known for championing environmental causes, the Walt Disney Company has pioneered new technology using environmentally benign compressed air instead of gunpowder to launch fireworks. Disney puts on hundreds of dazzling fireworks displays every year at its various resort properties in the U.S. and Europe, but hopes its new technology will have beneficial impact on the pyrotechnics industry worldwide. The company has made the details of new patents it has filed for the technology available to the pyrotechnics industry at large with the hope that other companies will also green up their offerings.
While Disney's technological breakthrough is no doubt a step in the right direction, many environmental and public safety advocates would rather see the Fourth of July and other holidays and events celebrated without the use of pyrotechnics. Parades and block parties are some obvious alternatives. Meanwhile, laser light shows can wow a crowd without the negative environmental side effects associated with fireworks.
CONTACTS: American Pyrotechnics Association, www.americanpyro.com/State%20Laws%20(main)/statelaws.html; Walt Disney Company, http://corporate.disney.go.com/environmentality/press_releases/2004/2004_0628.html.