As if a cascade of debris, rats, alligators, snakes, and sewage weren't a daunting enough challenge for emergency workers grappling with Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters, they're also faced with determining whether high levels of industrial toxins are tainting the waters.
"A toxic soup would be a good way to describe the situation," said Thomas La Point, director of the Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of North Texas.
With two critical levees breached and several of the city's powerful drainage pumps failing, some 80 percent of New Orleans is now underwater. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco called the situation untenable and said the tens of thousands of refugees now huddled in the Superdome stadium and in other makeshift shelters would have to be evacuated.
City Near Large Petrochemical Plants
Researchers say what's in the floodwaters is going to cause serious short-term and long-term problems for the city. The city of New Orleans sits near a vast marshy area that's a large petrochemical complex. The longer the floodwater remains trapped in the city, the more it will be contaminated with petrochemical products, sewage and other refuse, according to La Point.
La Point says bacteria and sewage pose the most serious and immediate dangers. "They'll have to protect human health first. People have to find a safe water source," he said. At this point, that means boiling it or buying it.
La Point added, however, that toxic waste from industrial sites will certainly complicate cleanup efforts. "The storm surge is the real culprit. It is, in effect, a flowing river. Any time a current flows, it traps sediment, and that mud in this case will no doubt carry some of the petrochemical compounds. They're going to have to determine what kinds of compounds are in the water, how much of the material has been released, and in what levels of concentration," he said.
One of the compromised levees sits along the Industrial Canal, a 5.5-mile waterway that connects the Mississippi River to the Intracoastal Waterway. Louisiana's petrochemical industry manufactures one-quarter of America's petrochemicals, including basic chemicals, plastics and fertilizers, and more than a third of all industrial chemicals transported on the nation's inland waterway system wend their way through this canal.
Before Katrina came ashore, some analysts were projecting a worst-case scenario that the storm would leave New Orleans as the nation's largest toxic waste site. Fortunately, the track of the storm veered away from major industrial sites and storage facilities.
The Environmental Protection Agency has not been notified of any major spills, said public information officer Beth Sweeney, but the agency has dispatched aerial surveillance teams to conduct helicopter flyovers around municipal and industrial sites.
Too Early to Gauge Contamination
If there is a substantial level of toxic waste in the waters and sediment left in their wake, there is a distinct possibility that some areas may no longer be safe for housing. "You could have a situation where the petrochemical-derived compounds are present in such a concentration that you'll have to declare it a brownfield," La Point said.
"Long term, there's going to need to be some care taken to follow the currents of the storm surge. They'll have to sample the sediments to know the range, breadth and extent of contamination. This is going to take months," he added.
Hassan Mashriqui, of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, whose storm surge flood models have already accurately projected the path of the storm, said it's too early to tell what sort of contaminants were carried by the waters and where they may ultimately settle. "There are so many factors at play right now. The levees first need to be repaired, before the pumps can be effective," he said.
With emergency workers focusing on rescue efforts and evacuations, officials have yet to determine the degree to which industrial contaminants have mingled with the floodwaters. Blanco told reporters in an afternoon news conference she had no information about petrochemical spills as of yet. "We couldn't tell you what's under the water ... except houses."