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Officials fear flood waters are toxic

Leaking fuels, chemicals, pollution and sewage could create health problems.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2005

The water that swept through New Orleans' streets in the wake of Hurricane Katrina carried more than continued misery for the storm's victims.

It also brought along a potentially toxic soup of pollution - sewage, chemicals and perhaps human bodies.

"The area's become a hazardous waste site," said Dexter Accardo of the St. Tammany Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are surveying the flooded neighborhoods to gauge how hazardous conditions might be.

"It's not just a normal flood," said John C. Pine, an environmental studies professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "The stuff is on the buildings and inside them, too."

New Orleans lies between the Mississippi River, nearly a half-mile wide, and Lake Pontchartrain, about half the size of Rhode Island.

The lake has long been a dumping ground for local sewer plants and dairy producers, making it off-limits to swimmers until a determined cleanup effort began at the end of the 1990s.

New Orleans' sewer system is old and in poor condition, Pine said. During Katrina's onslaught, trees that were ripped out of the ground pulled loose underground pipes, local officials told WWL-TV in New Orleans. The uprooting caused breaks in the sewer and natural gas lines, which then leaked.

The city's port is a major hub for the transportation of hazardous cargo, Pine said, so the flood may be contaminated by that, too.

Gasoline, diesel fuel and oil leaking from underground storage tanks at service stations may also become a problem, federal officials have said.

And then there are the storm's uncounted victims. As rescuers work to save survivors from their rooftops, "we're not even dealing with dead bodies," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said. "They're just pushing them on the side."

Local officials fear that diseases such diarrhea, cholera and malaria could spread, just as they did after a tsunami devastated Southeast Asia eight months ago.

Fearing just such a situation, last year Louisiana sponsored a full-fledged hurricane simulation to train everyone on what to expect, Pine said.

As a result, he said, "because of the nature of what might be in the water, you see the responders knowing what steps to take to reduce their vulnerability as they rescue people."

As of late Tuesday, EPA officials said they had not declared New Orleans hazardous, but "due to the flooding conditions, we anticipate that sewage releases could be an issue," said EPA spokeswoman Beth Sweeney.

So far, she said, there have been reports of only minor chemical spills, but EPA officials are attempting to evaluated the damage from the air.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment.

If the floodwaters are indeed toxic, then the question becomes: How to get rid of it?

Getting rid of floodwaters so residents can return to their homes is likely to require pumping the dirty water into either the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain, LSU experts said four years ago.

The lake route would kill several thousand acres of nearby swamps and marshes which have already been rapidly diminishing because of alterations to the Mississippi River. But pumping it into the river means flushing it into the delta and the Gulf of Mexico, already suffering from a "dead zone" due to other upriver contaminants.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which contains information from the Associated Press, WWL-TV and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

[Last modified August 30, 2005, 18:38:56]

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