|E’s report also shows that
the Bush administration is now drastically under-funding the
environmental cleanup, as the media spotlight has moved on.
E’s special issue includes a first-hand report from the
scene of the cleanup, an investigative report on contractor profiteering,
and an interview with Louisiana environmental justice leader
Last December, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory
assured residents that most samples taken in the previous two
months showed chemical concentrations “below acceptable
levels.” The EPA doesn’t say whether it’s safe
for residents to move back to New Orleans. Those decisions, says
EPA Press Secretary Eryn Witcher, “incorporate a variety
of factors, which are best made by local officials.” And
those officials are mostly urging residents to return.
My big message is: You can come back to the city,” said
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
So how worried should people be, as they contemplate moving back
to the Big Easy? Environmental consultant and chemist Wilma Subra
says they should be very worried indeed. The big problem, she
said, is sediment that had been sitting at the bottom of rivers
and other water bodies collecting industrial chemical contamination
and agricultural runoff from nearby industry. The sediment was
relatively harmless sitting undisturbed, but it did not stay
put and was deposited all over New Orleans by Katrina.
Subra’s own tests, conducted at 33 locations in Louisiana,
Mississippi, and Alabama for the Sierra Club and the Natural
Resources Defense Council, showed especially elevated levels
of arsenic, but also high amounts of lead, dioxin, chromium,
and other hazardous substances well above safe standards. The
EPA’s results were radically different, she says, because
they’re based on the extremely relaxed state standards.
Dr. Peter L. deFur, a biologist who conducts research on environmental
health and ecological risk assessment at Virginia Commonwealth
Institute, says that short-term effects from exposure to such
toxins can include respiratory problems and skin rashes.
The EPA warns New Orleans residents to avoid contact with the
sediment, but Subra says that it has now become airborne and
would be very difficult to avoid even if residents had access
to the protective clothing, respirators, and gloves the environmental
agency recommends. The worst danger from the sediment is in New
Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods. According to the Brookings
Institution, 38 of the city’s 49 poorest districts were
flooded. And 80 percent of the neighborhoods under water had
Southeast Louisiana was an environmental nightmare before Katrina. “Cancer
Alley,” as the stretch of the Mississippi between New Orleans
and Baton Rouge is called, has more than 100 polluting chemical
plants, oil refineries, and other industries routinely sending
their waste discharge downwind or downstream. “Not levee
breaks, but they might as well be,” said E publisher Doug
Moss in E Magazine’s lead editorial.
We’re seeing what’s called the ‘Katrina cough,’” says
Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental
Action Network. “There are a lot of respiratory illnesses.
And especially among people who have been in the flood waters
we’re seeing skin infections that don’t respond to
normal antibiotic treatment.”
Dita McCarthy, whose 15-year-old daughter is temporarily attending
classes at DeLisle Elementary School in Harrison County, Mississippi
(where unsafe arsenic levels were found in Subra’s tests),
says she’s seen “clouds of dust” that the kids
walk through on their way to classes. “We thought it looked
like the Dust Bowl, and we thought it was funny,” she says. “But
then we heard about the arsenic and it wasn’t so amusing.
There really needs to be more testing.”
E Magazine distributes 50,000 copies six times per year. Single
copies of E’s March/April 2006 issue are available for
$5 postpaid from: E Magazine, P.O. Box 2047, Marion, OH 43305.
Subscriptions are $20 per year, available at the same address.