Monday, November 14, 2005

After Katrina: The Bad Times Continue to Roll

If you're a worker, resident or tree in New Orleans or on the Gulf Coast, things aren't going so well these days. A series of recent articles in a variety of newspapers tell stories of contamination of the water and land with toxic chemicals, dangerous molds that may already be causing disease, workers without proper safety equipment who often don't get paid for the work they've done, and corporations involved in the cleanup who want Congress to free them of any liability for damage that they may cause.

The contamination that has gotten the most attention comes from the 1 million gallons of oil spilled from a Murphy Oil Corp. storage tank, which left unsafe levels of diesel and oil-related organic chemicals in sediment. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease

said that people should not move back into homes where oil is visible and that they should use protective gear when they are working around contaminated homes. The agency said studies have shown that if someone touches oil substances with their bare skin they may suffer from rashes and be at a slightly higher risk of skin cancer.
EPA has also found high levels of arsenic, diesel fuel and other petroleum-based chemicals around the refinery.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reviewed data from the National Response Center which showed

that the two storms caused at least 595 spills, incidents that released untold amounts of oil, natural gas and other chemicals into the air, onto land and into the water.

The quantity and cumulative magnitude of the 595 spills, which were spread across four states and struck offshore and inland, rank these two hurricanes among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Some have even compared the total amount of oil released — estimated at 9 million gallons — to the tragedy of Exxon Valdez.


"This is about the tenth disaster I have responded to, and this is the worst I have ever seen," said Wally Cooper, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator, in charge of overseeing the Murphy Oil spill cleanup. "This is worse than the worst-case scenario."
Mother nature is only partly to blame for the high number of chemical tanks that ruptured during the storm:

"A high proportion of them are not properly tied down," Ivor van Heerden, the center's director, said in a November 2003 report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Imagine a storage tank full of diesel lifted by floodwaters,shearing its hoses, and its pipes working loose, and leaking."

Environmentalists say faulty equipment, not the hurricanes, was to blame for many of the spills. For the activist community, the storms' environmental impact has refocused efforts from day-to-day pollution and on to bigger issues such as whether energy infrastructure should be located along a hurricane-prone coast, said Denny
Larson, coordinator for the Refinery Reform Campaign.

"People have said for years that they shouldn't have facilities in low-lying coastal areas where contamination risks are great," Larson said. "It's ... the poorest possible choice." As Congress considers building new refining capacity, environmentalists are already pushing for lawmakers to require companies to have plans for natural disasters. The design of storage tanks also is likely to be a topic in the storms' post-mortem, experts say.

In order to understand the possible long-term effects of the contamination in New Orleans, the Dallas News reviewed the EPA test results of every chemical test at every site in Orleans Parish through Oct. 1 and compared them with the EPA's screening levels for residential soil. The News found high levels of cancer-causing arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, the banned insecticide dieldrin and lead.

Although early reports from EPA claimed that the water in New Orleans was no more polluted that normal flood water,
Contaminated sediment was always a more serious long-term worry than floodwater, since the water was quickly removed. In September, experts advised the EPA that toxic dust could spread as the sediment dried.
Buildings in New Orleans are now contaminated with mold and the toxic "soup" has dried into toxic mud, creating all kinds of new problems:
That debris includes a thick layer of dried mud that cakes much of St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines parishes and vast areas of Lakeview, the 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans. As the mud crumbles to dust and goes airborne or people come into contact with it on the ground, there is increasing concern it could be harmful to humans. Some sediment samples have contained arsenic, lead and petroleum products, and EPA officials said residents should avoid contact if possible.
Mold is being detected in previously unseen levels. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, "preliminary testing results indicate that the indoor mold spore count in flooded homes is reaching 2.5 million; a count of more than 50,000 is considered severe by the National Allergy Board" and stores have run out of the recommended respirators.

The mold be be causing what is coming to be called "Katrina Cough," according to the Los Angeles Times:

Dr. Dennis Casey, one of the few ear, nose and throat doctors seeing patients in New Orleans, called the condition "very prevalent." And Dr. Kevin Jordan, director of medical affairs at Touro Infirmary and Memorial Medical Center in downtown New Orleans, said the hospital had seen at least a 25% increase in complaints regarding sinus headaches, congestion, runny noses and sore throats since Katrina.

In most cases, Casey said, patients appear to be "allergic to the filth they are exposed to." Those allergies make the patients more susceptible to respiratory illness, including bacterial bronchitis and sinusitis.

Among the public, the condition is known alternately as "Katrina cough" and "Katrina's revenge" — much to the consternation of physicians who feel the monikers paint a needlessly alarming portrait of the environment


But the condition could be more serious for people whose health is otherwise compromised — for example, organ transplant patients; people who are undergoing chemotherapy; or people who suffer from emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis or ther ailments.

"It could be life-threatening to those people," said Dr. Peter DeBlieux, associate medical director of the Spirit of Charity, a MASH-style clinic that has been set up in downtown New Orleans. "Those people are already living on a precipice and could be pushed off. Those people are encouraged not to come back to the city."

With the promise of work and high pay, high numbers of undocumented immigrants have flocked to New Orleans and Mississippi. Unfortunately, on top of the dirty and dangerous work, the AP's Justin Pritchard reports that many complain of not being paid after weeks of work.
A pattern is emerging as the cleanup of Mississippi's Gulf Coast morphs into its multibillion-dollar reconstruction: Come payday, untold numbers of Hispanic immigrant laborers are being stiffed. Sometimes, the boss simply vanishes. Other workers wait on promises that soon, someone in a complex hierarchy of contractors will provide the funds to pay them.

Nonpayment of wages is a violation of federal labor law, but these workers — thousands of them, channeled into teams that corral debris, swaddle punctured roofs in blue tarps and gut rain-ravaged homes — are especially vulnerable because many are here illegally.
Many of the firms that aren't paying are subcontracting from KBR, a firm owned by Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton.

The worst problems seem to be in Mississippi, although it's hard to gauge accurately, as the state doesn't even have a labor department, it's not against the Mississippi law to not pay workers, and any complaints are forwarded to the federal Department of Labor. The only option workers have is to file a claim with the federal government or take their employer to court, options that few, if any, immigrant workers will take advantage of. In fact, despite widespread complaints of non-payment of wages, Mississippi prosecutors have not received a single complaint.

On top of all this, corporations involved in the cleanup are pushing a bill, S. 1761, through Congress that would "streamline" contractor-liability laws and push all related lawsuits into the federal court system.
In addition, the proposed Act would temporarily bar contract employees from suing government contractors handling the Gulf Coast clean-up, end monetary awards for emotional and other non-physical damages and prohibit courts and juries from levying punitive awards in such cases.
S. 1761 would apply not just to the Katrina disaster, but to any future national disasters in which federal aid costs more than $15 billion. A coalition of labor and environmental groups have sent a letter to Congress opposing the bill.

The letter urges that

"Congressional relief, recovery, and rebuilding assistance must make clean air and water for the people of the Gulf Coast a priority. Instead, the residents of the Gulf Coast who have already been victimized by the terrific force of these hurricanes will be victimized again by this bill, which would leave them without a remedy against government contractors that cause irreparable harm to their air and water."

Noting that contractors' actions can either help people or imperil their safety, the letter asserts that such contractors, "who are paid by the taxpayers for the work that they do, should be held fully accountable to the public if they behave carelessly and cause harm to people or the environment. No public policy reason justifies Congress granting federal contractors legal immunity for negligence or illegal activity."

The letter warns that S.B. 1761 also would immunize contractors from liability for personal injuries or property damage in most cases by expanding the Government Contractor Defense. Currently, that defense generally applies only if the government provides precise instructions that the contractor must follow – such as design requirements for military airplanes – and the injury occurred because the contractor adhered to those specific, mandatory instructions.

But S.B. 1761 would create a presumption that all elements of the Government Contractor Defense are met merely by the Army Corps' Chief of Engineers certifying the contract as necessary for disaster recovery. The presumption could only be overcome if the contractor acted fraudulently or with willful misconduct in submitting information to the Chief of Engineers at the time of the contract. The letter notes, "In other words, the defense will almost always apply to disaster contractors

Despite the serious problems, however, the major media has moved on from the hurricane stories. Workers and residents of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast aren't so lucky, however, and may still be feeling the health effects of this disaster decades from now.