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Cleaning Up New Orleans' Toxic Stew
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Cleaning Up New Orleans' Toxic Stew

Environment

Cleaning Up New Orleans' Toxic Stew

Cleaning Up New Orleans' Toxic Stew
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Floodwaters that filled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are now being pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain — along with raw sewage, bacteria, pesticides and chemicals. Madeleine Brand speaks with Karen Gautreaux of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality about state and federal plans to clean up or mitigate polluted water and soils.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The pumps that are uncovering New Orleans are churning floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain. But this water is now heavily polluted. Federal officials say it's full of raw sewage, bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides and toxic chemicals. Joining me now is Karen Gautreaux of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. And thank you for joining us.

Ms. KAREN GAUTREAUX (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality): Well, thank you for inviting me.

BRAND: Now tell us more about this water that's being pumped back into the lake.

Ms. GAUTREAUX: Well, the water is, of course, the result of the levees flooding. And what's happened in New Orleans that makes it somewhat of an unusual flood is that typically, when you have a large event like this, the waters recede. But the topography of New Orleans forms a large bowl, and what we're working with right now is essentially floodwaters that won't recede that have to be pumped out of the city, and the only option in this situation was to Lake Pontchartrain. There would have to be infrastructure built to try to go into the river. So the priority right now--rescues are still going on. It's a public health issue. So we need to get the water out as quickly as possible.

BRAND: Well, you've done some preliminary testing of this water. What are you finding in it?

Ms. GAUTREAUX: From preliminary results, it's nothing too surprising. There are large amounts of fecal coliform, E. coli bacteria. That seems to be the primary contaminant we're seeing right now. We are testing--in the process of testing the water for a larger number of pollutants associated typically with the chemicals you'd expect in an event like this.

BRAND: Well, so you've got raw sewage in there and also, as I understand, there is a lot of oil that has leaked into the lake as well. What are the kind of contaminants?

Ms. GAUTREAUX: This has flooded a huge residential and commercial area. You have the materials that are present in vehicles, in boats, including oil, gasoline, fertilizers. We'll likely see some pesticides, and we also have, of course, industrial facilities, areas around refineries and such, that have residue on the ground. We've had some leaks. So those are the types of things that we would expect to find right now.

BRAND: And so you're pumping this all back into the lake. Eventually, how will you get all of this out of the lake and clean the site?

Ms. GAUTREAUX: Well, what we're doing--we have an excellent--DEQ has actually played a large role in support of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, the cleanup in the area. That has been a priority environmental issue for a long time. So, of course, we're very concerned. The good news is we have a lot of background information. We're sampling the water before it goes out into the lake. We have confidence that nature is pretty resilient, and a lot of the bacteriological contamination that we're going to be seeing could be dealt with in nature in two or three days, and then the other contaminants will probably be sequestered in sediment. So, again, this wasn't the ideal solution, but we do have confidence that the long-term impacts associated with the water will be taken care of. We're pretty confident nature will be able to handle it and typically does handle these kinds of wastes.

BRAND: Understandably, people want to know pretty quickly what exactly is in the water. When will they have a full and accurate understanding of what's in there?

Ms. GAUTREAUX: Well, we should have the results back from sampling that's taking place within the next few days, over the next few days, and we are greatly expanding our monitoring efforts right now. One issue has literally been the ability to get access to monitoring sites. We have approximately 100 regular monitoring sites in the area, so again, we have excellent baseline data, and as people can get access to the sites, we'll be able to run the samples and determine exactly what's in the water, and we're working with the USEPA on that.

BRAND: So within a matter of days.

Ms. GAUTREAUX: Yes. We should have a good profile of what's in the water within the next few days.

BRAND: Karen Gautreaux is a deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. GAUTREAUX: Thank you very much.

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