An environmental expert warns residents about the hazards of returning to New Orleans—now home to a dangerous brew of toxic chemicals and bacteria. Sept. 16, 2005 - Contaminated floodwaters and air pollution have devastated the Gulf Coast ecosystem. As Hurricane Katrina victims try to rebuild their lives after one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the environmental impact remains a looming threat.
It’s still unclear how long it will take for the environment to recover, as officials weigh the possible risks to returning residents. Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response with 35 years of experience at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, addressed his concerns with NEWSWEEK’s Bao Ong. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What do you think about the mayor of New Orleans saying he’ll reopen the city in the coming days?
Hugh Kaufman: The mayor said New Orleans will “breathe again.” Yeah, they’ll breathe bacteria, viruses and volatizing toxic chemicals. There is no environmental assessment. I mean, you can’t even make a determination of the risk factor. But more important, we don’t know what to tell the public in terms of what their risk is when they come back. The public thinks it’s safe. It’s one of the more reckless and irresponsible government decisions made in the last decade. Second only to [former EPA chief] Christie Todd Whitman after [the] World Trade towers came down [saying], “We’ve tested the air and it’s safe. So ya’ll come back.” And now [some] of the people that came back are sick as dogs.
What do you think the government is basing its decisions on?
There is no environmental characterization that has been accomplished. There’s been a lot of political spin but no valid environmental assessment to determine the amount of hazardous material, bacteria and viruses that are in the air, in the muck and in the dust that the people would be exposed to 24/7 when they go back.
So have you been down there?
No. I’ve done thousands of cases like this. They’re all the same. The only difference between this and other cases is the size of it.
How does the environmental damage of Katrina compare to other hurricanes?
The hurricane did allow for the breakage of the sewer systems which put into the environment everything that was in the sewer, which was human waste and industrial waste. It also caused breakage of containers that store hazardous materials. It’s [a] toxic gumbo.
What are the possible long-term effects on the environment?
Oh, boy. First of all, you’re going to wipe out shellfishing, shrimp fishing and parts of the water down there because of the discharge into Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi [River] and moving down to the gulf. You’re going to have a tremendous amount of toxic waste that has to be cleaned up and disposed of. You’re going to have air pollution that will make some people sick initially and increase the risk of cancer 10, 20, 30 years down the line in the areas that have been contaminated with the oil and chemical waste. It’s uncountable, the amount of environmental and public-health problems that most folks down there are going to see for years to come. If Love Canal is a fly, then this is an elephant—in terms of environment and public-health effects.
Can you talk more specifically about these toxins and they risks they pose?
You’ve got oil and petroleum products, which have toxic constituents that have been documented to cause cancer. You have other chemicals coming from landfills and Superfund sites that haven’t been documented. You’ve documented chromium, arsenic and lead, which with some of the other toxic chemicals can cause birth defects, spontaneous abortions, illness—short term and long term—and asthma. Until a thorough assessment is completed of the three pathways—air, direct contact and ingestion of hazardous materials—until that assessment has been done, nobody can quantify how many more cancers, how many more deaths will occur down the line as a result of precipitous interaction with these hazardous and toxic materials that are ever present in that region of the country.
What kind of assessment and how long will it take?
There are some areas that you can do some quick assessments where there has not been major water damage and [which] have not been impacted by waterborne waste and toxic material, like the French Quarter. You could make decisions in a couple of weeks. I’m not against allowing the public back. They just need to be given the information on what type of risks they’re taking [for] when they go back. Right now there’s a lot of spin that’s coming out of politicians that things are safe. That’s irresponsible and reckless public policy because of the pollution in that area.
What kind of timeline would you give a resident in a flooded area for coming back?
It depends where they are. Areas that have been submerged and exposed to high volumes of toxic materials, it would be years before they could go back. Other areas with much less contamination, it would be months where they could go back safely. My view is as long as you characterize the area so they know what they’re being exposed to, I have no problem with them going back at any time. It’s their choice. As long as they’re told what risks they’re taking and are told what protective measures they should take. They have to be told environmental facts and the truth.
Have you heard from flood victims?
I’m getting some e-mails from folks who have been evacuated wanting to talk about the assessment, and I try to answer them and give them information. But I think most of the people down there are getting their information from the news media, and of course you’re getting conflicting information because everybody is spinning. You’ve got government agencies speaking from both sides of their mouth. You’ve got trouble.
What kind of rebuilding programs will these Gulf Coast cities need to recover?
They’ll need tens of billions of dollars of federal money to clean up and rebuild and to take care of the folks who have been harmed by this. It’ll be like the Marshall Plan was in Berlin. Or like we said we were going to do for Iraq.
You dealt with the environmental impact in New York after 9/11. How does Hurricane Katrina compare?
It’s very different. You’ve got a very large number of people spread out over a broad area who can’t get out. In 9/11, people could get out and they did. But [the government is] making the same mistakes as they did after 9/11. There’s no difference. You’ve got the rescue work being done by the military, by the Coast Guard and local heroes. That’s been very good, [as expected]. But the work to protect the public health and the environment—not just that the people who [survived] and the heroes—that was just as much a disaster as it was after 9/11.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc