Storm Warnings: Will the Toxic Cleanup be Politicized?

My cousin, Rebecca Mark, is an English professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her home on Pine Street is only a few blocks from the historic university, and from what she’s heard it took on three and a half feet of water.

When hurricane victims are finally able to return to their homes, they may have to face an onslaught of mold and dangerously polluted water.

Fortunately, says Mark, now living temporarily in Florida and planning an indefinite stay in Virginia, her house is one of the few in her neighborhood with a basement. She says that makes her relatively “lucky,” because the basement may collect the excess water, keeping it from ruining the rest of her house. (A spokesperson with the National Flood Insurance Program confirms this may be the case, but he says it is also entirely possible that basement flooding could seriously damage a home’s foundation, depending on various factors). But with the waters receding, Mark faces a stark choice: Should she return as soon as the authorities will let her, or will that choice expose her and her 11-year-old son to environmental toxins that the government neglected to tell her about?

“It’s a polluted, contaminated and toxic environment,” Mark says. “I have a friend who is moving back in town, and she says, ‘What toxins can be there that are worse than what was already there?’ But we have to worry about mold breeding in the sheetrock, about dangerous water quality, about air pollution. Is it safe to bring an 11-year-old boy back in there? We want the latest scientific information. We want to be assured that there will be monitoring. What happened to the Cancer Alley chemical plants? Weren’t they flooded? We don’t want to be told in 25 years that the reason we all got horrible diseases was because of our exposure in the wake of the storm.”

Millions of Gulf Coast residents face difficult choices like this, and the federal government could help with clear information about toxic threats and advice on how people should cope as the rebuilding effort gets underway. Unfortunately, Congress and the Bush administration seem more concerned with image building and with scoring political points than in assisting the citizenry. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is coming under withering criticism for its failure to provide timely data.

The Society of Environmental Journalists says that reporters “are having an increasingly difficult time using the Freedom of Information Act to drag information out of the federal government to shed light on Superfund sites, chemical factories, mining accidents and a host of other topics important to citizens.”

Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst and whistle-blower, says the agency has failed to provide clear information on the location and danger of chemicals that leaked into New Orleans communities. EPA, he said, “has [either] become totally incompetent at water testing, or there is a cover-up.” George Sorvalis of OMB Watch said to BushGreenwatch, “EPA does not appear to be testing for chemicals related to the petrochemical and oil industries, including diesel and byproducts of petrochemical refining. These are chemicals you would expect EPA to test for.”

The chemicals present in New Orleans at the time of the storm represent a real witch’s brew. According to the National Environmental Trust, “These industrial chemicals range from formaldehyde to benzene to cyanide compounds and include neurotoxins, carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins. All chemicals listed were present in significant quantities and could pose serious short- and long-term public health risks if they have leaked.”

You won’t get this kind of warning from the feds. EPA has posted data from New Orleans flood water samples indicating high levels of E. coli bacteria, advising residents “to avoid human contact with flood water when possible.” But, of course, many thousands of city residents were chest deep in the stuff for days at a time.

Louisiana’s state Department of Environmental Quality, notorious in the past for its easy licensing and lax monitoring of polluters, said last week that air quality “is not a concern right now.” The DEQ’s Chris Roberie added, however, that “pathogens and molds are a different issue, as well as asbestos and lead as demolitions begin. We have not seen anything of great concern, as you would expect when you evacuate the city.” Meanwhile, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported concern about benzene and xylene levels above short-term and chronic exposure limits near the site of an oil spill and fire.

Ivor van Heerden, head of a Louisiana State University center that studies the public health fallout from hurricanes, told the Times of London that gasoline, antifreeze, bleach, human waste, acids, alcohols and “a host of other substances” will have been washed through populated neighborhoods, requiring extensive cleaning.

Dennis McGuire, Chief Technology Officer of Ecosphere Technologies (which makes an EPA-verified, large-scale mobile filtration system), adds, “We already know that the water in New Orleans is contaminated with sewage, fuel, deadly bacteria and lead. With an amount this size, all they have to do is look at the harbors in places like New York City that dump fuels and petroleum products to see the loss of marine life, the estuary system—and that’s where the whole food chain starts. The EPA knows the technology exists to pump clean, filtered water out of New Orleans, but they apparently just want to move polluted water.”

These chemicals will aggravate existing health conditions, including asthma. Dr. Franklin Adkinson, a leading allergist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, warns that “New Orleans asthma will come back with a vengeance when the city is livable once again. Flooding of homes in warm climates can accelerate the growth of mold that can be very difficult to get rid of. And, as with other tragic consequences of the breakdown of levees, the poor will suffer the most since they have little or no resources to combat the problem.”

Mold is a truly dangerous threat. The website quotes Doug Rice, a mold expert and director of Colorado State University’s Environmental Quality Laboratory. “It’s going to be incredible,” Rice says. “We’re going to have quite the lab experiment going on there.” A critical factor is continuing high humidity related to the lack of air conditioning. “If they don’t have electricity for two or three months, that’s going to be a problem,” said Rice, who had added that 1999’s Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina had produced “incredible” mold growth after parts of the state sat underwater for weeks, and that New Orleans will be worse.

Mold susceptibility will vary throughout the city, the Wall Street Journal reports, with the biggest threat to older houses (often in poorer neighborhoods) built before 1972. These homes were built with plywood panels that are not fully water-resistant. “It is imperative to dry out a flooded house quickly, but that could prove difficult in the heat and humidity of Louisiana,” the newspaper concluded with some understatement.

According to the Boston Globe, “After floods, federal agencies often urge homeowners to strip homes of wet carpets and furniture and dry the building out within 48 hours to stop mold infestation—but there are no guide

lines for what to do with a house that has been partly submerged for weeks
.‘The mold will get into the cracks in the ceiling, behind the paint,’ said Michael McGinnis, director of the Medical Mycology Research Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. ‘It really creates difficulty because there is going to be lots and lots of mold growing.’”

The Bush administration and Congressional Republicans seem to have something other than mold on their minds. A blizzard of bills and executive actions are designed to relax regulatory “burdens” that the President and these lawmakers had long opposed, using the storm as a fig leaf. Among other things, says MSNBC, these bills will (or would if passed):

"Suspend federal fuel standards designed to combat high ozone and sulfur emissions;
"Relax the requirement that petroleum be transported on U.S.-flagged ships while in U.S. coastal waters;
"Waive rules limiting the number of consecutive hours truckers carrying fuel can drive;
"Suspend Davis-Bacon Act provisions requiring the federal government to pay “prevailing wages” on storm-related construction sites;
"Open up vast areas of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, currently under a federal moratorium, to oil and gas exploration.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee went on a fishing expedition last week, asking the Justice Department to investigate whether greens were really responsible for the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. As Our Planet reported last week, an article appearing on National Review Online charged environmental groups with impeding levee reconstruction. The groups fired back, pointing out that the lawsuits had nothing to do with the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain. Nevertheless, a Senate committee headed by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) reportedly asked the Justice Department to investigate, resulting in an e-mail to U.S. attorneys’ offices asking for information on “environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the [Army] Corps’ work on the levees protecting New Orleans.”

As the New York Times reported, Inhofe also introduced legislation that would allow the EPA to suspend any law governing air, water or land if it related to Hurricane Katrina. But a key member of Inhofe’s Senate Environment Committee, James Jeffords (I-VT), opposed the legislation, saying, “We should be focusing our energy on protecting the health and safety of people impacted by the hurricane, not paving the way for environmental abuse.” Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch called Inhofe’s bill “a blank check to ignore crucial health and environmental protections.”

The public is already fired up over the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. If it finds the administration botched the cleanup for short-term political gains and hidden agendas, it could get even more angry.

Daniel Scollan and Jayasudha Joseph contributed editorial research.


Clean Air Watch