Wilma Subra, who has worked on several Superfund hazardous-waste sites and has served on advisory groups for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fears breathing problems caused by a combination of mold and oil from the flooded Murphy Oil Refinery
"Dust is blowing out of the restricted area, and the people being let back in … are breathing highly contaminated particulates," Subra said. "The environmental and health agencies should not have allowed the residents to go back in."Even some EPA staffers are not too confident about the health of workers or residents:
People are returning to homes covered in sediments contaminated by the oil spill, she said. Subra said she has seen "mold growing on walls, ceilings, fabrics, couches … everywhere."
"It is a double insult," she said. "The chemical insult from the sludge and biological insult from the mold."
"We haven’t even done a damage assessment, let alone an environmental assessment," said Hugh Kaufman, senior policy analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency’s solid waste division.But, of course, the first response should be prevention:
Kaufman said that if federal, state and local governments had followed the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan, agencies would have coordinated seamlessly to ensure public health and safety. "Obviously, that didn’t happen in terms of getting people out," he said, "and it’s not happening right now in terms of protecting the heroes."
According to EPA tests, the biological threats from the flood include elevated levels of E. coli bacteria and toxic mold. Contamination from industrial facilities pose a more troubling long-term concern, with more than 40 oil spills reported in Louisiana by the Coast Guard last week and thousands of chemical containers spotted bobbing in the region’s floodwaters. The oozing sediment that coats flood-impacted areas may yield an even greater danger in the coming months as the ground dries, releasing airborne contaminants like harmful organic gases and fuel vapors. The potential health effects range from allergic reactions to organ damage.
The watchdog groups OMB Watch and National Environmental Trust have questioned the reliability of the EPA’s environmental sampling data – information that would factor heavily in worker safety determinations.Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued a factsheet:Protect Yourself From Chemicals Released During a Natural Disaster
The released records show that the vast majority of water contaminants tested for have been detected at non-dangerous levels or not at all. However, environmental advocates suspect that the real damage is much deeper, noting that the 2003 EPA Toxic Release Inventory registers thousands of pounds of chemical waste churned out by local facilities. Meanwhile, a treated federal toxic site, the Agriculture Street Landfill, is currently stewed in floodwaters.
The environmental community is demanding that the government go beyond dispensing advice and mandate more public health research on Katrina’s environmental impacts and stronger protections for workers serving in the recovery effort.
Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans evacuee and Louisiana field organizer for the Sierra Club, said that the government should establish an organized system to track the long-term health effects on exposed New Orleans recovery workers. However, he said, considering that the government has haphazardly fanned refugees across the country, "If that’s the level of record keeping they have for workers, it’s going to be a disaster in the future."