Katrina Causes Toxic Mess on Ground

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There are hundreds of chemical plants, oil refineries, and other major industrial facilities located on the Mississippi River Delta near the city of New Orleans. Early surveys suggest that these plants survived Katrina largely intact. Unfortunately, when Katrina's floodwaters poured into New Orleans, they may have created a toxic mess that could take decades to clean up.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

There are hundreds of chemical plants, oil refineries and other major industrial facilities on the Mississippi River delta near New Orleans. Early this morning, there was an explosion near the city . It's not clear whether it involved chemicals. Early surveys of the facilities along the Mississippi suggest they survived Katrina largely intact. That's good news for officials who'd worried about giant chemical and oil spills. Unfortunately, when Katrina's floodwaters poured into New Orleans, that may have created a toxic mess that could take decades to clean up. NPR's John Nielsen reports.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Days before Katrina made landfall, chemical and oil companies with facilities near New Orleans started telling most of their employees to get out of town. Skeleton crews were to remain behind to ride out the storm. Dorothy Kellogg, senior director of security at the American Chemical Society, says these crews did everything they could to make sure the plants were still standing when the storm was over.

Ms. DOROTHY KELLOGG (Director of Security, American Chemical Society): Filling tanks, because a full tank is less likely to float away than an empty one, tieing down equipment to prevent wind damage, emptying waste treatment ponds as much as possible, because you want to be able to hold storm water if you need to.

NIELSEN: When Katrina did hit, the skeleton crews sat tight inside darkened control rooms watching for signs of catastrophic damage. Apparently, while the storm was on, they didn't see any. Many plants were battered and/or flooded by Katrina. Some of that damage may have been the cause of this morning's blast. But Tom LaPointe(ph), an aquatic toxicologist at the University of North Texas, says the city is lucky that so far there's only been one of these explosions reported.

Mr. TOM LaPOINTE (University of North Texas): If the hurricane had come in directly from the south, it would have had a much more serious hit on the petrochemical complexes that are to the south and east of the city of New Orleans. And in that case, we would have heard much more about some of these refineries breaking apart, storage vessels being broken and so forth.

NIELSEN: The fact that Katrina zagged before it smashed into the city helped reduce another threat. Researchers had worried that the storm would stir up toxic sediments that sit at the bottom of waters all around the city. If the levee were to break, those toxics would then pour into the city. But as it happened, the main levee break occurred along Lake Pontchartrain. Gaboury Benoit, a pollution expert at Yale's Environment School, says the mud at the bottom of that lake happens to be relatively clean.

Mr. GABOURY BENOIT (Yale Environment School): And by that, I mean that it doesn't contain high levels of toxic substances like heavy metals, things like lead and mercury, or of toxic organic compounds, things like PAHs, PCBs and even more exotic toxic substances like dioxin.

NIELSEN: Benoit says the city's toxic luck may not hold out much longer, however, mostly because factories are not the only sources of toxic pollution. New Orleans is a city where fuel tanks at gas stations and solvent tanks as dry-cleaners are always built above the ground, for instance.

Mr. BENOIT: For the same reason that the burials occur above ground. The ground is saturated. But because they're above ground, they can also float when there's flooding. So there's a risk that those have broken loose and may have spilled fuel oil into the waters.

NIELSEN: Tom LaPointe, the pollution expert at the University of North Texas, says an even bigger source of toxic pollution may be found inside thousands of homes that are now flooded.

Mr. LaPOINTE: Think of the types of chemicals that everyone generally has somewhere in a city in their garages, such as I do. We've got insecticides, we've got herbicides. But most people have benzine. They'll have turpentine. They'll have all kind of solvents, paints, the types of things that cities collect only on special days when they allow hazardous chemicals to be collected.

NIELSEN: LaPointe says many of these chemicals are now sinking into the layer of silt that will be left behind by the floodwaters. In the short run, the threats they pose are nothing compared to those created by flooded sewer plants and contaminated drinking water supplies. But in the long run, LaPointe predicts that this toxic layer of muck will vastly complicate efforts to clean up and rebuild the neighborhoods flooded by Katrina.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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