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Neck Deep in Toxic Gumbo

Water quality in New Orleans -- and throughout the South -- has been deplorable for years. In Katrina's wake it just got dramatically worse.
 
 
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As the government drags its feet, the unknown number of human bodies decomposing in the New Orleans floodwaters are becoming hosts for a horde of diseases. The bodies continue to fester and rot, potentially contaminating the city they used to call home.

For now, clean-up efforts focus on the essentials: removing bodies and debris and draining the floodwaters. Health and human services secretary Mike Leavitt has declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf region, where bacteria and viruses are the most immediate threat to rescue personnel and residents, caused in no small part by all the hurricane's decomposing victims.

The Centers for Disease Control has reported four fatal instances of vibrio vulnificus , a cousin of cholera. Red Cross and other relief workers are struggling to prevent outbreaks related to salmonella, e. coli and other bacteria that cause nausea, diarrhea, and can lead to severe dehydration. There is also cause to fear the spread of hepatitis A, a virus that causes liver disease. But a real plan to assess the health problems that could plague the Gulf Coast for decades is noticeably absent.

Polluted Past

Pollution has been a major problem in Louisiana for decades before Hurricane Katrina hit. Reporter Ron Nixon coined the term " toxic gumbo" to describe the potent mix of waste that courses through the state. The Big Easy, perched at the mouth of the Mississippi River, is located at the narrow end of a funnel siphoning immense amounts of industrial, agricultural and human waste every day.

"Virtually anything could be in the water," said Jim Elder, the EPA's former National Director of Drinking Water and Groundwater. "I'm not sure that anywhere has ever seen all these chemicals put together in the same place. That's why people are referring to this as a toxic soup. I think that's a simple but apt description."

Elder says the many heavy industries based in Louisiana have been leaching chemicals into the soil and groundwater for decades. But Katrina stirred up an even deadlier mix of waste: submerged automobiles are leaking oil, gasoline and other chemicals into the floodwater; asbestos that may have been contained in old buildings has been released by the flooding and the collapse of buildings; raw sewage, decaying body parts, offshore oil rigs and possibly ruptured pipelines all pave the way for a myriad of serious and potentially fatal medical conditions.

Hazards to Heroes

Hugh Kaufman, who helped found the EPA and has worked for the agency for 35 years, was the chief EPA investigator for the post-9/11 emergency response. He's now a senior policy analyst for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and he's concerned about the millions of residents who may return to the new, toxic Louisiana and the rescue workers wading into the lethal stew.

"After 9/11, because the government did not do its job properly and provide the responders with the proper clothing and equipment -- like respirators -- now over 75 percent of the responders are sick as dogs," he said. "And they're starting to die off, four years after their heroic efforts in responding to 9/11.

"And I'm concerned the same thing is happening down in that region of the country," he continued, "where the responders are not provided respirators and the proper equipment to protect them from their exposures."

Given the government's already shoddy response to the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi, Kaufman's concerns should raise many alarms. Where the World Trade Center became a deathtrap of poisonous chemicals, at least the site was relatively safe before the towers came down. Louisiana, however, has long been one of the country's most polluted areas.

The ongoing pollution of Louisiana's air, water and soil by oil refineries, hazardous waste, and whatever else has been dumped into the Mississippi River over the years have given the 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the nickname "Cancer Alley."

The moniker is sadly justified. "The chemicals that are being manufactured, stored and disposed of, where all those chemical plants are in Southern Louisiana, can cause cancer," said Kaufman, who worked on thousands of pollution cases during his tenure with the EPA, including Love Canal. "And there are high cancer rates of people living and working near those areas. That's why it's called Cancer Alley."

Cornered in Cancer Alley

Like many of the New Orleans residents who survived the breakdown of government in the days following Katrina, most people living and working in the shadow of these industry giants -- among them Shell Oil, DuPont, Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil -- have two traits common among Americans in the South: They are poor, and they are black.

According to the U.S. Census, about 1 in 10 Americans live below the poverty line. In New Orleans, that number is closer to 1 in 4. According to Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University, Louisiana has the largest share of the nation's impoverished children, and about half of the children in New Orleans live at or below the poverty line.

Robert Bullard, a pioneering activist in the environmental justice movement, said it's no coincidence that Cancer Alley happens to belch its chemicals into black neighborhoods.

Together, Wright and Bullard examined the history of responses to emergencies in African American communities. "Over the last 25 years," Bullard said, "we've gotten all kinds of case studies showing that government tends to move slowly in relation to clean-up of health-threatening Superfund sites and facilities located in minority communities."

And families who live in Cancer Alley can't just pack up and move away from the polluted backyards of industry. A few communities have sued surrounding industry and won relocation, a process in which the offending industry pays to move community members away from the dangerous plumes and air pollutants it emits.

Although relocation is a victory, it also serves to fracture tightly knit communities by scattering people across the region. And all too often, families are relocated five miles down the road -- this time in the backyard of some other industry.

The CDC reports that the national average of cancer deaths per 10,000 people is 199.8. In Louisiana, the number is 230.4. The state's cancer mortality rate ranked second highest in the nation in 2003. And African Americans are more likely than whites to have and die from lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers -- all which have been linked to prolonged chemical exposure.

"In many cases, the government has not operated in the best interests of poor people and people of color when it comes to enforcing environmental laws," Bullard said. "The stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, that petrochemical corridor, is a hotbed for environmental racism cases. The struggle and the issues that a lot of communities in New Orleans will have to deal with now, in terms of contamination -- some of those battles were being fought before. And they will still be fought after this hurricane."

When the Water Recedes

Today, Bullard says, the issues of cleanup are larger and broader. Because of the hurricane, even affluent families were left homeless. "Now, you've leveled the playing field," Bullard said. "You're gonna have to have a lot of different, diverse folks at the table working together for the same thing. There has to be a silver lining, some type of opportunity out of this disaster.

Before any rebuilding can begin, federal, state and local governments have to work at "unwatering" the city.

"We had originally estimated about 80 days to unwater the city," said Alan Dooley of the United States Army Corp of Engineers. Dooley explained with an engineer's detail the process of re-establishing the levees. "It's looking a little more optimistic now."

Though the area may be dried out in less than 80 days, there's no telling when residents may be able to return to their homes -- if their homes are still standing.

Of those Gulf Coast residents who did not lose their houses, most of them will want to return home as soon as possible -- intuitively, once the floodwaters have been pumped and the streets drained.

Kaufman warns that this may be the worst idea yet. "The danger is actually worse when the water goes away, because you have hazardous materials more concentrated in muck and dust," said Kaufman. "People will more readily come back, and will try to clean their homes or porches. And they'll have toxic dust they'll be sweeping around. An they'll inhale it and ingest it. ... If there's no clean-up you have basically people living and trying to clean in the middle of the country's largest Superfund site."

The real danger of a breakfast of "toxic gumbo" is difficult to convey. Names like chlorobenzene, toluene, and hydrogen cyanide certainly sound dangerous, but explaining how prevalent and toxic they are is a daunting task. But EPA's Jim Elder believes if citizens don't push for a well-managed clean-up, the health effects of exposure will reveal themselves.

"Depending on the type of contamination, we could see every medical illness you can think of," Elder said. "Cancer of any type -- bladder, kidney, intestinal, lung, brain, skin cancer. ... The EPA has a list of regulated drinking water contaminants and what the health effects are of exceeding the standards. You can pick any one of those chemicals, and each of them could be present in the Gulf Coast area right now."

Even worse, the combined effects of all these chemicals is completely unknown. "You're gonna have so many of these chemicals interacting, and most of these chemicals have only been tested one at a time," Elder said. "They have never looked at the synergistic effect of all these chemicals on human health."

Cost to the Coast

The process of ensuring the health and safety of those who return to the areas affected by Katrina will take time and money, and might be the biggest clean-up effort ever for the EPA.

"To get a good handle on this, people are going to have to study the environmental impacts and human health effects on a broader scale than they did with 9/11," Elder said. "It's certainly on a broader scale than any of the recent disasters that I can think of in U.S. history."

As with the initial emergency response to the hurricane, the EPA, FEMA, and other agencies involved in the clean-up are under-funded and under-prepared for such a large undertaking.

"You have to have a major sampling assessment program. [People can return] when there has been a comprehensive sampling program that can give the all-clear that it's safe," said Kaufman. "There is no program in place that can even do that at the present time."

The Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Ledger reported that the storm damaged 31 Superfund sites and 466 chemical plants. Close to 400 calls came through the EPA and Coast Guard hotline to report oil and chemical spills, and clean-up workers continue to find empty containers that once housed hazardous material.

Kaufman believes it's just not a safe place to go home to yet. "Little kids walk around and get dirt in their mouths from their hands," he continued. "And it's not just New Orleans. It's all the areas where there were releases of hazardous material and sewage. The water being pumped out of New Orleans is now spreading that to Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. It's expanding the area of contamination."

Even if there are serious health risks in returning home, it may be a difficult decision for evacuees to stay away. As Beverly Wright points out, even families that do have relatives nearby are living in extremely cramped quarters. Her extended family, for instance -- all 26 members -- is holed up at her inlaws' house in Baton Rouge.

But Elder and Kaufman maintain that it could, and should, take years to make the area inhabitable again. Some areas could be inhabitable sooner, but what is important, they say, is to make sure that every effected area is tested for contamination. "Based on Love Canal, it will take a minimum of 10 years to do the monitoring and cleanup," Kaufman said.

"There needs to be a well-coordinated, well-thought-out strategy as to how this is going to be tracked, assessed, evaluated and proper decisions made," Elder said.

With the tragedy of Katrina behind them, the most responsible thing to do for the people of the Gulf Coast is to ensure that the many potential health hazards are avoided. The city of New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast region, must demand a full-fledged clean up, stress Bullard and Dr. Wright.

"History has shown us that oftentimes if a community is poor and happens to be a community of color, it has to fight for things that most white people take for granted," said Bullard. "We're gonna have to make sure ... that we address environmental conditions within that particular community, and treat it as if the president of the United States lived next door."

Nicole Makris works for the SPIN Project and has written for Mother Jones, Hyphen Magazine, and other publications.