NEW YORK, 24 June 2006
Dear EarthTalk: What have been the most
significant environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New
Orleans? -- Samantha Gray, Tacoma, WA
longest-lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina was its environmental damage
that, in real terms, has mainly to do with public health. Significant
amounts of industrial waste and raw sewage spilled directly into New
Orleans neighborhoods. And oil spills from offshore rigs, coastal
refineries, and even corner gas stations have also made their way into
residential areas and business districts throughout the region.
Analysts estimate that seven million gallons of oil spilled
throughout the region. The U.S. Coast Guard says that much of the spilled
oil has been cleaned up or "naturally dispersed," but environmentalists
fear that the initial contamination could devastate the region’s
biodiversity and ecological health for many years to come, further
devastating the region’s already ailing fisheries, once the economic
lifeblood of the area.
Meanwhile, flooding at five
"Superfund" sites (heavily polluted industrial sites slated for federal
cleanup), and the wholesale destruction along the already infamous "Cancer
Alley" industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have only
served to complicate matters for clean-up officials. The U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers Katrina the biggest
disaster it has ever had to handle.
wastes, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals also created a
witch’s brew of floodwater that quickly seeped down into and contaminated
groundwater across hundreds of miles. "The range of toxic chemicals that
may have been released is extensive," says Johns Hopkins University
environmental health sciences professor Lynn Goldman. "We’re talking about
metals, persistent chemicals, solvents, materials that have numerous
potential health impacts over the long term."
Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, environmental regulations in
place to prevent the types of discharges that occurred during Katrina were
not enforced, making what would have been a bad situation much worse.
Unchecked development throughout ecologically sensitive parts of the
region put further stress on the environment’s ability to absorb and
disperse noxious chemicals. "Folks down there were living on borrowed time
and, unfortunately, time ran out with Katrina," Kaufman
To date, recovery efforts have focused on plugging
leaks in levies, clearing debris and repairing water and sewer systems.
Officials cannot say when they will be able to concentrate on longer-term
issues such as treating contaminated soil and groundwater, though the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers has begun a Herculean effort to physically remove
tons of contaminated sediment left behind by receding floodwaters.
Meanwhile, financially strapped state and local agencies are slowly
cleaning up or removing contaminated buildings, many of which harbor mold
and viruses that can still make people sick.
But just as
some of these longer-term remediation projects are getting started, the
Gulf Coast is battening down the hatches for what promises to be another
whopper of a hurricane season this summer and fall, fueled in part by
increasing ocean temperatures due to global
CONTACTS: EPA’s Response to 2005 Hurricanes Website,
www.epa.gov/katrina; "The Toxic
Legacy of Hurricane Katrina," www.emagazine.com/?issue=125&toc.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental
Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/,
or e-mail: email@example.com. Read
past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.