Assessing Katrina's Environmental Impact Environmental Protection Agency chief Stephen Johnson joins Ed Gordon to discuss the EPA's efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And Erik Olson, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, offers another perspective on the EPA's Katrina cleanup.
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Assessing Katrina's Environmental Impact

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Assessing Katrina's Environmental Impact

Assessing Katrina's Environmental Impact

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

As government and relief groups continue to assess the damage wrought by the hurricanes, environmental groups have begun to address the environmental nightmares left in their wake. Many areas are laced with harmful toxins that may pose health risks. Earlier, Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, joined us to talk about the hazardous conditions in the region.

Mr. STEPHEN JOHNSON (Environmental Protection Agency): The flood water is contaminated with bacteria. There's other materials, including lead and petroleum products. We also know that--before the reflooding because of Rita, we know that the sediment that had been left is also contaminated with bacteria and petroleum products, both of which we've issued advisories with the Centers for Disease Control to avoid contact with. We also know that certain parts of cities and, again, in New Orleans, the East Bank drinking water facility, is not providing potable water. The pumps are working, but the water's unsafe to drink. And...

GORDON: So when we hear from...

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, excuse me.

GORDON: I'm sorry, but when we hear from Mayor Nagin, for instance, who, over the course of the last couple of weeks, has wanted to repopulate the area, and understandably so, what would you tell him if you had him face to face, and what have you told him if you, in fact, have talked with him?

Mr. JOHNSON: We have been working through Admiral Allen, as all of the federal departments through the SENSINET(ph) command structure. We, like across America, want New Orleans to return to the thriving city it was before the hurricane--or I should say now hurricanes--and that the decision to reopen, to reoccupy the city, we understand that there are multiple factors that go into that decision. And certainly we've been sharing all of the information on contamination of floodwaters, the status of drinking water systems and wastewater treatment systems, so that he can make the most informed decision.

GORDON: So do you feel comfortable enough not to have to supercede, if you will, local authority who wants people to repopulate this, quote, "safer areas" of New Orleans, that you and your organization feel it's safe enough to, in fact, go into those areas?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, again, ultimately it's a decision to be made by the local leaders, including...

GORDON: Though you could supercede that, though.

Mr. JOHNSON: Under, you know, certain circumstances, but, you know, again, at this point, we've been working very closely with Admiral Allen and he with the mayor and our other partners, including particularly the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

GORDON: There are people who are suggesting concern based on what they see as a checkered history, particularly after 9/11. Many people felt that they weren't given all of the information up front. And what of cries from those like Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA--We should note that he was chief investigator for the 9/11 cleanup--who is suggesting that the Bush administration has been putting pressure on the EPA, preventing them from releasing information?

Mr. JOHNSON: Mr. Kaufman is not directly involved with the hurricane recovery. I've certainly not received any pressure. The only pressure I've received is to be responsive, to make sure that we both assess and restore the environment for everybody.

GORDON: So no one from the administration--obviously we're not speaking of the president specifically, but no one from the administration has called to say, if not `Don't put this out,' `Could you hold on to this for X amount of time before releasing it'?

Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely not.

GORDON: Mr. Johnson, as a lay person, my initial concern, when we started to see the levee system working and the pumps working, was the idea that I don't know if we want to see that water going back into Lake Pontchartrain. Is that safe?

Mr. JOHNSON: We had little choice. Where were the pumps? They were in place to move the water from the city into Lake Pontchartrain. And what was our first goal? And that is to protect public health. So we wanted to make sure that the city was made dry as quickly as possible, so that's where the pumps were. Obviously portable pumps were brought in. But we are also concerned, and we're working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and other federal partners to continue to monitor and to assess Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi. In fact, we're having one of our ships brought into the Gulf to begin doing some extensive sampling over the next few weeks. We, too, are concerned, but at the time, we had little choice.

GORDON: What about the cleanup of where much of this sludge and toxins will go? There, of course, will be tremendous concern that much of this will land in areas that are inhabited by minority and poor people.

Mr. JOHNSON: Our job and my job and certainly my instructions to our staff is to assess and restore the environment for everybody, regardless of race, regardless of social status. With regard to the debris, we've never faced the literal volume of debris across the Gulf. And so we're working with the states very cooperatively to manage that debris, to make sure that the hazardous materials are appropriately disposed of in a hazardous waste-permitted facility, for construction debris and demolition, to use available landfills, permitted landfills.

GORDON: But if we go to the current landfills and the like, disproportionately, they are located in this country in rural and poor urban areas. What can you say to people who, as we've seen a new light shown on poverty, who may feel like, `We're getting the short end of the stick once again'?

Mr. JOHNSON: Certainly as the president has said, and I think it's certainly where we're trying to be, and that is as we clear away the debris of the hurricanes, we really hope to clear away the legacy of inequality. And so we're doing everything we can. Obviously there's a lot of debris. It needs to be managed, and we're working very cooperatively to make sure that it's managed properly, again, first, to make sure that the environment and public health are protected...

GORDON: Would you say, though, that the EPA historically, and based on what you're saying now about the mandate from the president, will have to take a better look at where they have housed this kind of material debris and the like?

Mr. JOHNSON: I've been with the agency, this December, 25 years and a scientist, and what I'm interested in is making sure that working with our communities and working with our local leaders to make sure that this material is disposed of and disposed of in a way that's best for everyone.

GORDON: All right. Mr. Johnson, let me ask you this before we let you go--And we appreciate your time...

Mr. JOHNSON: My pleasure.

GORDON: Many people are considering this the worst environmental calamity in US history. Would you agree with that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it certainly is the biggest environmental challenge resulting from a natural disaster that we've ever faced as a country. You know, the challenges are many. We've got multiple drinking water systems and wastewater treatment systems that are not operating. There are oil spills, and so there's much work to be done, but we have right now more than 650 employees and contractors working through the region to help assess these and take the necessary steps to address and restore the environment for everybody.

GORDON: All right. Stephen Johnson of the EPA, we thank you very much for your time. Greatly appreciate the information.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you very much, Ed.

GORDON: For another perspective on the EPA's Katrina cleanup, we're joined by Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment. The council has been consulting with the EPA and other groups on the ground in New Orleans.

Mr. Olson, thanks very much for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. ERIK OLSON (Natural Resources Defense Council): Thank you for having me.

GORDON: Let me ask you, we talked to Stephen Johnson earlier, and he talked about all the testing that the EPA is doing, and he believes it's relatively safe for people to go back in the region. Would you agree with that assessment?

Mr. OLSON: Unfortunately, there's still many areas that are quite toxic, and we know of at least 500 spills that have occurred of oil and hazardous chemicals as well as a lot of toxic chemicals that have been stirred up from sediments and so on, and a lot of raw sewage. So it's clear that many areas are not safe, and we believe that we absolutely have to fully test before people start returning so they are not going to get sick.

GORDON: Mr. Olson, so much has been made as to whether or not we are receiving all of the information that the EPA has. Mr. Johnson, of course, denied the idea that the Bush administration was trying to put pressure on the EPA to not release all the findings. As relates to your knowledge and history of events like this, do you believe we know everything there is to know right now?

Mr. OLSON: Well, I think there are two basic problems. One is that the testing that's being done so far is not adequate to make sure that people are going to be safe. There are a lot of areas that were contaminated, that there's been no reported testing at all. The second problem is that it seems to be taking a while before EPA releases their data. They say that they are doing quality control, but often it takes quite some time before it becomes public, and that's going to become a bigger issue as more people start showing up, hundreds of thousands of people start returning, and they're going to be exposed, even though the test results haven't been released.

GORDON: What of the cleanup after the fact and where we're going to put all of this? There have been cries from the African-American community for years in terms of environmental racism and where sludge and other effects aftermath are housed. Is that something that needs to be watched and will continue, in your mind, to be problematic?

Mr. OLSON: What we're very worried about is we have this toxic soup of contaminants that is in the flood water. As that dries up, much of it ends up in the mud, which dries out and people are going to be exposed to, and we're especially concerned about the children. Now the cost of doing a full cleanup is going to be enormous, and there will be great pressures on the Bush administration and on others that are involved in the cleanup to reduce costs and to minimize how much it costs the federal Treasury. We're very worried that there is not in place a full plan to make sure that there is fair and full cleanup across the board in every community and so that the toxins don't end up, again, unfairly in the backyards of some of the poorest people. In fact, there are actually proposals that some in the administration have supported that would waive some of the basic cleanup and pollution control standards that would really kick people while they're down in these storm-affected communities, allowing more pollution than would otherwise be allowed. We just think that's a terrible idea.

GORDON: Of course, we'll watch and continue to monitor the situation. Mr. Olson, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. OLSON: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

GORDON: Erik Olson is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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