- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Environmental Protection Agency officials and environmental specialists said yesterday that the cleanup of flood-soaked New Orleans will require razing neighborhoods, comprehensive disinfection, and extensive removal of soil and sediment infused with chemicals and bacteria.

“The whole city of New Orleans has the potential for being a giant Superfund [toxic dump] site,” said Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said tests continue to show high, unsafe levels of sewage and lead in New Orleans’ water and evidence of other chemicals, such as chromium, copper, iron and sodium.

He characterized Hurricane Katrina as the “largest natural disaster the EPA and the nation have ever faced.”

“Until we have a better handle on the magnitude of the problems, it is impossible to speculate on how long it will take” to resolve the environmental threats, said Mr. Johnson, who cited concern about the contaminated floodwaters’ effect on the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.

Several people familiar with the subject predicted that once the floodwaters are flushed out, possibly by next month, there will be extensive debate about the safety of certain neighborhoods, schoolyards and parks because of the presence of chemicals and bacteria.

“They are now part of the ecosystem, part of the water, part of the soil. Those chemicals will be absorbed on any surface, organic and inorganic,” said Mirat Gurol, professor of environmental engineering at San Diego State University.

Ms. Gurol said many of the organisms will survive in spores and cysts, becoming dangerous again once they get in contact with water or humidity. She also expressed concerns about health risks from long-term exposure to chemicals and to heavy metals, such as lead, which do not decay in the soil.

The EPA also has found carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in New Orleans’ floodwaters.

Von Roebuck, spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to speculate about the health risks.

“The key is what kind of pollutants are in that water, and until we find that out, we can’t predict,” he said. The EPA tests are “preliminary,” and much more analysis is needed, he said.

Some people in the hurricane zone died after they waded in the contaminated floodwaters and developed bacterial infections that penetrated open sores. In shelters, there were outbreaks of norovirus, a condition caused by consuming feces-contaminated food or water or coming into contact with an infected person. Norovirus is not usually life-threatening.

The levels of sewage found in New Orleans’ floodwaters were 10 to 20 times greater than levels the EPA considers safe.

Daniel W. McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of Black & Veatch Water in Kansas City, Mo. — which has contracts with Federal Emergency Management Agency to install and repair water systems in the flood-ravaged area — said he thinks it’s “more than likely drinking-water systems have been contaminated, even if they are still in service.”

Boiling water “will kill live organisms, but not chemicals,” Ms. Gurol said. “Long-term exposure to chemicals is a risk factor.”

Mr. McCarthy agreed, saying it’s necessary to flush and sanitize all lines.

Roy K. Dokka, a Louisiana State University geologist, expects that thousands of New Orleans residents “will be traumatized” when they are told their houses will have to be torn down.


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