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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Orleans Sediment: Harmless or Hazardous?

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Jeff Young)

State and federal officials say there's no health risk from the sediment coating New Orleans after Katrina despite samples showing lead, arsenic and other toxins. But activists, armed with a scientific study, argue otherwise. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.


CURWOOD: Despite the great outpouring of sympathy for Gulf Coast residents after the catastrophic summer storms, restoration efforts are only just getting started. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, the New Orleans levee system is still broken, and for those who decide to chance a return, caution is the watchword.

One hazard that seems to be too much for the authorities to handle right now is the dull, gray dusty grime that the mucky floodwaters left behind. It stains the city’s walls, streets, backyards and playgrounds. It’s loaded with poisons such as arsenic, but Louisiana environmental and health officials say the sediment is not a health hazard so long as people avoid too much contact. Some New Orleans activists don’t agree and they’re demanding a cleanup.

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.


(Photo: Jeff Young)

YOUNG: This is the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, just a few blocks from the breach of the industrial canal. The sediment left behind is a couple inches thick all over the ground here. It’s drying and caking and cracking, and there’s a lot of concern about what’s in that sediment and what happens when it dries up and blows around.


FIRST WORKER: Pretty well saturated.

SECOND WORKER: That enough?



YOUNG: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired these workers to take samples from a New Orleans neighborhood known as the Agriculture Street landfill. A housing development and school there sit atop an old hazardous waste dump.


YOUNG: The fear was that these old toxic sites and the region’s heavy industry left behind what some called a toxic gumbo in the sediment, which was more than a foot deep in some parts of the city. State and federal agencies took thousands of samples from some 150 sites in New Orleans and neighboring parishes.

Early tests found high levels of fecal bacteria, but officials expect those microbes to die out. Arsenic, lead and organic hydrocarbons from diesel and oil, substances linked to cancer, neural disorders and other ailments, were found in many parts of the city. But officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality say the levels detected do not present short or long-term health threats.

HARRIS: Not even close to a toxic soup.

YOUNG: That’s Tom Harris, Louisiana’s state toxicologist.

HARRIS: The levels of chemicals were consistent with what was there before Katrina and protective of children playing in the dirt for the next 30 years.

YOUNG: Harris says the state and federal agencies will continue to monitor, but his conclusion—backed by EPA—is that most of the area is safe. Although a number of samples exceed state and federal thresholds, Harris says they are still within what he calls “acceptable risk.” Except for one community in St. Bernard Parish affected by an oil spill, no widespread cleanup of sediment is needed. Environmental activists looked at the same numbers and came away with a very different conclusion.

OLSON: We see a clear need for EPA and the state to step in and start a cleanup as soon as possible.

YOUNG: That’s Erik Olson, an attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC teamed with local groups in Louisiana to audit EPA and state data and to conduct some of their own sampling. They say the agencies have downplayed risks posed by the sediment and dodged responsibility to clean it up. Olson says the state should apply a stricter standard for toxins like arsenic because of the nature of the sediment.

OLSON: Our scientists call this “bio-available.” This coating just covers the whole area. Children, especially, are going to be crawling around in it, they’re going to be running around in it. The dust is suspending, people are sweeping it up, it’s in their houses, it’s all over the city. If you don’t clean that up, the problem is that people will continue to be exposed.

YOUNG: As activists and regulators argued over how to interpret the data, the first peer reviewed scientific study of the sediment appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Texas Tech University Professor Steven Presley led a team that found slightly elevated levels of some pesticides and arsenic. But it was lead levels that got his attention. In two samples, lead was above what EPA calls its high priority "bright line" screening level. Presley says the data pose questions for officials.

PRESLEY: Why did we establish these values where there’s concern that human health will be negatively impacted? Why were those values established if we’re not going to do anything about it when we exceed those values?

YOUNG: A senior policy analyst at EPA says some within the agency asked the same questions. Hugh Kaufman is a 30-year veteran of the agency and a frequent critic of his own employer. Kaufman says the federal agencies ceded authority to the state, which is eager to sound the all-clear and avoid a costly cleanup.

KAUFMAN: A decision had been made that EPA would basically have the Corps of Engineers start the cleanup process. Around the beginning of December there was backpedaling by the federal government, and now the federal government’s position is that
everything is safe enough. And so we’re not going to do any substantive cleanup.

YOUNG: EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock denies this. He says the federal and state governments are working together without compromising safety.

PEACOCK: It’s easy for people to say, well, EPA should come in and do all this work. But the fact of the matter is the responsibilities are clearly set out in the national response plan and worked out with state and local officials to make sure public health and environment are protected.

YOUNG: New Orleans activists are still pressing for action. They sent EPA and FEMA officials a letter demanding a full cleanup of the sediment and are holding out the possibility of legal action to make it happen. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.



NRDC sampling results

EPA hurricane test results page

Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on arsenic

Environmental Science & Technology article on lead in New Orleans sediment


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