New Orleans' toxic tide
Chemicals leaking from cars and factories will cause one of costliest environmental cleanups ever.
Despite the stench - and the pair of pants, bottle of hair spray, and plastic oil cans that float by - Kenneth Economy wades barefoot into New Orleans's fetid brown floodwater.Skip to next paragraph
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He has no choice, like so many locals trying to right this wronged city. He is trying to restart the motor of a flat-bottomed boat as he and friends work to rescue people and animals out of their neighborhood. Those floodwaters, which have already destroyed an estimated 140,000 to 160,000 homes, now pose a new challenge.
As engineers began pumping out the Big Easy this week, creating small but visible wakes of water behind street signs and tree trunks, the water they're moving carries a volatile mix of everything imaginable - from household paints, deodorants, and old car batteries to railroad tank cars, sewage treatment plants, and landfills. While state officials stop short of calling it a toxic soup, at least so far, federal environmental officials call it catastrophic.
Breaks in the weather, nature's resilience, and engineering ingenuity could mitigate the size and scope of the problem, as they have with some previous natural disasters. But the environmental cleanup will be one of the nation's largest ever, experts say.
"This is an unprecedented mess for the US in recent history, and it seems to be certainly affecting many more people than prior US natural disasters," says Robert Pitt, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama.
Even discounting the area's unique geology and hydrology, officials and other experts say they're dealing with uncharted waters. "If we had never had a levee breach, we still would have had a tremendous amount of water in these sub-basins," says Don Basham, engineering construction chief for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Meanwhile, a warehouse explosion along the river in New Orleans and an oil spill several days after the hurricane passed through have added to the challenge. "Everywhere we look there's a spill," said Mike McDaniel, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality, in the state's first major assessment of hurricane Katrina's environmental impact. "There's almost a solid sheen over the area right now."
While officials won't know the full extent of the problem until the floodwaters recede - and probably not until weeks or months after that - they do know that the cleanup of what has become an enormous chemical cesspool will be one of the costliest ever. The US Army Corps of Engineers figures that just cleaning up millions of tons of debris - shattered buildings (some with lead paint or asbestos), washed-out motor vehicles, the sodden detritus of private life and commerce - will cost $1.5 billion.
For now, some environmental regulations are being waived in order to address immediate problems. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality issued the naval base in Chalmette a variance so it could burn debris, mostly food that spoiled after losing power. The US Environmental Protection Agency has waived the need for Clean Water Act permits to allow the pumping of polluted water out of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has declared a public health emergency in five states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. There's no telling when wastewater treatment and other sanitary facilities will become functional. More than 500 sewage plants were damaged or destroyed in Louisiana, including 25 major ones.