Grappling with Pollutants in Lake Pontchartrain

As millions of gallons of floodwater are pumped out of New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain, state and federal officials grapple with questions about what contaminants are in the water and how they'll affect people and the environment.

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Public health officials in New Orleans announced spraying will begin today against flies and mosquitoes. It's a step toward making the city inhabitable again. Pumping floodwater out from the city is another step. Millions of gallons of waters are being pumped into Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain even as state and federal officials are grappling with questions about what contaminants are in the water and how they'll affect the people and the environment of the region. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

One thing is certain. The water that still covers much of New Orleans is very polluted. Environmental Protection administrator Steve Johnson says initial water sampling by his agency shows there's a lot of sewage in it.

Mr. STEVE JOHNSON (Environmental Protection Administrator): Clearly, the water is highly contaminated with bacteria, it's unsafe, and people need to get out.

SHOGREN: There also are high levels of lead in the water. But Johnson doesn't know where it came from. So far, there have been no major disease outbreaks. But experts are concerned that the water may contain toxic chemicals that can cause long-term health problems. Three Superfund sites were in the flood area. One is the former Agriculture Street Landfill in downtown New Orleans. The soil there was tainted with high levels of lead, arsenic, and a toxic mix of cancer-causing chemicals. In the 1990s, the area was excavated, capped and covered with a foot of clean soil. Right now it remains submerged in the floodwaters. Johnson says EPA has not checked to see if toxic chemicals are leaching from the Superfund sites into the water.

Mr. JOHNSON: At this point, we don't know.

SHOGREN: Hugh Kaufman, a veteran EPA Superfund analyst, says he believes the answer is clear.

Mr. HUGH KAUFMAN (Superfund Analyst, EPA): It's basically leaking the hazardous material into the water and it's adding to the other hazardous materials, oil, chemicals, and sewage that's also in that water.

SHOGREN: Lynn Goldman used to head the toxic program at EPA and now is a Johns Hopkins University professor. She says these chemicals can be harmful to people who come into contact with them now and they could continue to pose risks to people and the environment, whether they get pumped into lake Pontchartrain or sink into the sludge that's left behind.

Professor LYNN GOLDMAN (Johns Hopkins University): If the hazardous materials that are there on that site have moved off of the site, those materials could end up not only in the water but also in soils in people's yards, in other buildings, and they can, in fact, in the future create exposures.

SHOGREN: Goldman also worries about an array of other dangerous chemicals that have been released from submerged gas stations, chemical plants, dry cleaners and houses.

Prof. GOLDMAN: Now that they have been underwater, those materials can break down and enter the environment, become a hazard for the responders, for children if they return, and can even wind up in the ecosystem, and then building up in shellfish and other seafood that then people might consume.

SHOGREN: Darryl Malek-Wiley, who works for the Sierra Club in Louisiana, says he's worried about the contamination from an oil spill at a refinery in Chalmette, just outside of New Orleans. He fears it has contaminated houses and yards.

Mr. DARRYL MALEK-WILEY (Sierra Club, Louisiana): We know that the oil had benzine as one of its components, which is known to cause cancer. It's going to be a long-term effort to clean up that community so it can rebuild.

SHOGREN: A major concern is what all this will mean for Lake Pontchartrain. That's the large brackish lake where the floodwaters are being pumped. EPA administrator Steve Johnson said it was a very difficult decision to waive environmental rules to allow that to happen. Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club says there was no good option.

Mr. MALEK-WILEY: The pumping of the water into Lake Pontchartrain is going to cause environmental damage; we don't know what. The sadness is that Lake Pontchartrain was an environmental success story in Louisiana in that it has been recovering and the city of New Orleans was thinking about reopening beaches to allow swimming in the lake next year.

SHOGREN: Already, there have been some scattered fish kills reported in the hurricane zone, and state officials say they expect more in the future. But they hope that over time, Lake Pontchartrain will heal itself. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can see satellite images of New Orleans at npr.org.

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