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home >> the library >> article archive >> Toxic Gumbo: Hurricane Katrina and Environmental Justice

Toxic Gumbo: Hurricane Katrina and Environmental Justice
September 21, 2005

by Steve Breyman print version
print version (graphics)
Oil Spills and Superfund Sites in Cancer Alley

Had Hurricane Katrina wanted to wreak a maximum of damage designed to highlight deeply entrenched environmental, social and economic injustices in the United States, it could not have picked a better place to make landfall than the GulfCoast around New Orleans.

The maddening and shameful images of poor people of color stranded on rooftops and in hell holes like the Superdome have been joined by a growing list of environmental insults delivered or made worse by the hurricane. Some of the worst include oil spills, toxic chemicals on the loose, flooded Superfund sites, and the release of vast volumes of raw sewage. While we have some knowledge of the immediate environmental costs and dangers of the disaster, uncertainties remain about Katrina’s toxic legacy for human and ecosystem health.

Oil Spills

The Coast Guard estimates seven million gallons of oil got free from at least forty-four factories, tank farms, and other facilities to join the floodwaters of southeastern Louisiana. This is nearly two-thirds the amount of oil left in Alaskan waters by the Exxon Valdez. But in the case of the tanker accident, clean-up efforts were aided by the fact that the oil came from a single source.

What the current Coast Guard estimate misses is the highly dispersed and enormous volume of gasoline, oil, solvents, and other chemicals released when floodwaters washed over countless abandoned cars, boats, trucks, buses, oil change joints, and vehicle repair shops. And what of the structural integrity of the region’s 2,200 underground storage tanks? Adding to the uncertainties are no fewer than 58 unmoored drilling platforms floating in the Gulf, and unknown damage to hundreds of undersea pipelines.

Superfund Sites and Chemical Spills

The region was already infamous for poisoning those of its citizens least able to resist it before Katrina struck. Now, some of these waste and production sites are completely submerged or burned. Consider the case of the Thompson-Hayward chemical plant. For decades up through the mid-eighties, the facility manufactured insecticides like DDT, herbicides like 2,4,5-T (the main ingredient of dioxin-laced Agent Orange), and fungicides like the dioxin-containing pentachlorophenol. Remediation efforts throughout the eighties and nineties were never fully completed; some 2,600 tons of herbicide-tainted soil were deemed too dangerous to dispose of anywhere in the country.

Or take the case of the submerged Agriculture Street Landfill, rich in heavy metals, hazardous waste, and asbestos. Some of the landfill’s contents originated with the clean up in the wake of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Plagued for years by uncontrollable underground fires, locals referred to the dump as “Dante’s Inferno.” As Rebecca Clarren reports, “while the EPA eventually declared the dump a Superfund site (after the city had filled the area and built homes and a school above the infill of trash), the only cleanup the landfill underwent was the removal of 5 inches of soil . . . [then] a plastic barrier was put down and clean soil thrown on top.”

A chemical storage facility on the river east of the French Quarter caught fire. Office buildings in New Orleans burned too, releasing that potent brew familiar to residents of Lower Manhattan after September 11. Explosions were reported in railcars carrying chemicals. What of the impact of the countless containers of household cleaning products floating in the region’s nearly 160,000 drowned residences?

Human and Animal Waste

As if the petrochemical hazards were not bad enough, residents must also contend with rotting livestock and seafood carcasses, dead fish and other marine life, innumerable drowned cats and dogs, and raw sewage. The region’s 200 wastewater treatment facilities are offline. The EPA declared as early as September 7 that e.coli bacteria levels in floodwaters were ten times those permitted by law. Add to this the untreated wastes dumped in shallow inlets and bays all along the coast by the thousands living aboard boats saved from the storm.

Several people have already died from vibrio vulnificus infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also worries about leptospirosis, with symptoms ranging from high fevers to liver failure, contracted through contact with water contaminated by livestock urine.

Neither Rocks Nor Hard Places

What to do with the toxic water under which sits New Orleans? Pump it into Lake Pontchartrain, untreated and as rapidly as possible, decided the Corps of Engineers. Environmentalists quickly identified two problems with this strategy. One, they fear the contaminants in the water will kill all living things in the giant but shallow lake, including migratory birds. Two, they worry that the storm roiled already contaminated sediments in the lake and in the Mississippi River that may have been transported elsewhere by the flood. These sediments were spoiled by companies like American Creosote whose century of production and accidents landed the site on the Superfund list in 1983. And like Ponchatoula Battery that dumped millions of spent lead-acid battery cases on the ground during the 1970s.

Flying over the GulfCoast a couple weeks ago, geographer Chris Wells of the US Geological Survey described the landscape as “absolutely bizarre and unreal.” With every tree in sight snapped, the remaining wetlands were scoured clean of vegetation as if by some giant scraper. With the exception of a few songbirds, and a lone alligator swimming twenty miles offshore, Wells saw no wildlife. Ecologists worry that the Gulf of Mexico’s frightful “dead zone” caused by algae blooms fed by agricultural run-off carried into it by the Mississippi is likely to expand.

These environmental bads illustrate the real, dire, and reversible costs routinely paid by residents of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and other national or regional sacrifice zones. As critical as we have rightly been of the unforgivably slow government reaction to evacuation and relief—with emergency response plans in place—there was no plan to cope with the environmental damage of a disaster.

Can we restore wetlands and barrier islands ravaged by centuries of shortsighted development? Can we replace our dependence on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals with renewables and benign alternatives? Can we bring back the Superfund tax on the chemical and oil industries—worth over $4 million each and every day—to help pay for the clean-up? Can we rebuild New Orleans with green materials and designs using local labor paid a living wage that will prepare the Crescent City for a future made riskier than ever by climate change? Can we forever put to rest proposals for elimination of the estate tax and other giveaways to those who already have too much? Might we finally end the war on Iraq? Answers to these questions will determine not only the future of the devastated GulfCoast residents, but of all of the rest of us as well.

Steve Breyman is Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Steve Breyman is Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Citizens Environmental Coalition.

(Photos provided by the author)

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