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Hurricane Katrina

Polluted water likely won't reach Florida

By Times Staff Writer
Published September 10, 2005



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As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly pumps millions of gallons of floodwater out of New Orleans, the pollution that goes with it is flowing back into Lake Pontchartrain.

Will it stay there? Or will it wind its way to the Gulf of Mexico and end up soiling Florida's beaches?

The answer to that last question, oceanographers say, is "probably not."

The water poured into New Orleans from the lake when levees protecting the city broke last week due to Hurricane Katrina. It contains a veritable zoo of microorganisms mixed with toxins. To clear the city for rebuilding, the corps is pumping the water back into the lake, without purification.

"You can't chlorinate the water going into the lake," said Edward Bouwer, a professor of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University, "because that would create other problems" that could damage the lake's health and alter its ecosystem, he said.

Although a bacterium found in the water has been blamed for three deaths in the storm's aftermath, Dr. Richard Besser of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it probably will not harm lake water or the fish. "This organism lives in brackish water. It likes the warm brackish water along the coast," Besser said.

If the pollution persists long enough in the lake water, though, and flows out through the Mississippi into the gulf, it could settle into the infamous "dead zone" south of the Mississippi delta, or perhaps flow toward Texas, said University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg.

But gulf currents make it unlikely that it will head to Florida, at least in the short term, he said.

Florida State University oceanographer Jeff Canton said the bacteria, oil and other contaminants are likely to settle out or die off before that water ever gets to land.

The greatest long-term pollutants are expected to be lead and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, Chanton said. Tests have turned up no evidence of cholera or other dangerous diseases.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg declined to offer an opinion on how the floodwater might affect the gulf. "It's too soon for us to have any kind of information," said spokeswoman Kim Amendola.

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report, which includes information from Newsday and the Associated Press.

[Last modified September 10, 2005, 01:23:18]


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