Cleaning up after Katrina will be a lengthy and expensive task. The EPA is taking the first steps in this process by sampling air and water in New Orleans. Critics say the cleanup could suffer from a lack of financial and scientific resources within the agency, but Administrator Stephen Johnson says the EPA is up for the challenge.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Louisiana is one of the nation’s most important sites for the chemical and oil industries, but in the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, there was little information available about any toxic hazards the storm might have unleashed. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency says crews it dispatched at first joined the search and rescue efforts, rather than testing the air and water.
Now, the EPA has turned to its core mission: protecting the future of these Gulf Coast communities from lasting environmental damage. And preliminary test results aren’t promising. According to the agency's air and water sampling, New Orleans floodwaters contain significant amounts of arsenic, lead and hexavalent chromium - a human carcinogen found in plastics and paints. There are also substantial quantities of E. coli and other bacteria that pose serious health risks.
Meanwhile, air samples show high levels of an acid found in detergents and pharmaceuticals that can cause skin injuries, respiratory problems and nervous system damage. Other air monitors have detected freon, isobutylene, and methanol but, so far, the EPA is not reporting that these are at dangerous levels.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson says the challenge his agency faces is huge.
JOHNSON: This really is unchartered territory. Unchartered territory in the sense of the magnitude of the problem. In my 25 year history here at EPA, have never seen the kind of historic disaster, natural disaster that we're facing, and EPA is there to help.
CURWOOD: But it’s hard to know how much help will be required from the EPA, and how much more work it can handle. The agency has been hit repeatedly by the Bush administration’s budget axe, with reductions scheduled for this year and next.
The added costs of assessing Katrina’s damage, and implementing restoration and remediation could easily put the EPA in the red but, so far, Administrator Johnson isn’t worried.
JOHNSON: At this point, we have sufficient funds; we're in the early days of assessment and we don't know what that assessment will show. Certainly, I've instructed our staff if there are any resource issues to make them known to me immediately. But, for now, we have sufficient resources to do what we are doing.
CURWOOD: As residents return to the city, critics of the EPA warn there may be political pressures on the agency to sound the “all-clear” and allow rebuilding while there is still widespread contamination. Steve Johnson dismisses those worries.
JOHNSON: I have not faced any pressure whatsoever. My responsibilities as head of EPA is to make sure the public health and environment are protected and, certainly, I've taken all the steps necessary to do that by doing all the sampling we're doing, by providing advice and council when I was alerted. When I was briefed that the water was unsafe, then Dr. Gerberding of the CDC and I went on national news to try to get the message out this water's unsafe. So my responsibility is to make sure public health and the environment are protected, and that's what I intend to do.
CURWOOD: The EPA administrator went on to say the agency has learned many lessons from its response to the World Trade Center disaster, and the priority now is on getting information out to the public as test results come in. The agency was widely criticized for downplaying air quality results in the early days after 9/11, and providing inadequate cleanup in the aftermath.
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