It seems like déjà vu all over again. After 9/11, the air in lower Manhattan was contaminated with asbestos and other carcinogens, leading to cancer cases among those who spent time down there cleaning up and sorting through the rubble and debris. And the EPA, under orders from Dear Leader, declared the air as safe to breathe, despite warnings that it most certainly wasn't.
And now, a full seven months after Katrina hit, new studies find that soil levels in St. Bernard Parish contain diesel and arsenic levels beyond the state approved levels. But the real kicker here is that the company who is responsible for the spilling of 25,000 barrels of oil, Murphy Oil Company, is refusing to help in the clean up of people's homes where the oil and toxins have reached and settled.
On top of that, the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality are indicating that this is not their problem to deal with either, punting this to the Center for Disease Control ("CDC") or Health and Human Services, all while acknowledging that the "sludge" contains harmful bacteria.
But a spokesman for HHS said the agency has no statutory responsibility for what's inside a private dwelling. A spokesperson for the CDC said it's not a regulatory agency and must be asked as part of a public health response to enter private homes. And, the EPA has tested inside people's homes before, so this is not unprecedented.
For a bit of background, the CDC's website has this to say about the Murphy Oil spill:
Hurricane Katrina lifted and dislodged a 250,000 barrel aboveground storage tank (tank # 250-2) at the New Orleans Murphy Oil Refinery. At the time, the tank contained 65,000 barrels of mixed crude oil and released approximately 25,110 barrels (1.05 million gallons). The released oil has affected approximately 1,700 homes in an adjacent residential neighborhood, an area of about 1 square mile. Several canals have also been affected: the 20 Arpent, the 40 Arpent, the Meraux, the Corinnes, the Delarond, and various unnamed interceptor canals.
On September 4, 2005, Murphy notified the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 6 Response and Prevention Branch (EPA-RPB) about an oil spill at the Murphy Meraux facility in Meraux, St.Bernard Parish, Louisiana and requested assistance. EPA and the U.S.Coast Guard (USCG) agreed to divide responsibility for the spill. EPA is overseeing Murphy's cleanup of oil in residential properties and properties accessible to the public (parks, school yards, roads, highway median strips, sidewalks, etc.). EPA is also assisting with the treatment and remediation of oil-impacted canals for clean-up levels that will be determined by key stakeholders and regulatory authorities.
The CDC website also includes a chart that indicates some of the soil samples that have toxin levels that exceed the minimum acceptable levels. Of the 53 samples taken, over 1/3 of them have levels exceeding the minimum standard. These toxins include diesel fuel, arsenic, as well as a number of semi-volatile and volatile organic chemicals.
According to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network:
[t]he sedimentary sludge that has settled in and around everyone's homes is composed of "toxic heavy metals and the polynuclearomatic hydrocarbons both of which are cancer causing agents."
What does the EPA have to say about this?
When EPA administrator Stephen Johnson was asked about the threat of these toxins, he acknowledged that the sludge contains harmful bacteria:
We know that that sediment contains bacteria. We know that in certain parts it contains high levels of petroleum products. People shouldn't come into contact with that. So whether its 24 hours or 48 hours or two weeks still the message is: avoid contact with those kinds of materials.... And so EPA does not have any statutory responsibility for indoor air, for example. And issues such as mold are the responsibility of and advice and counsel from the Centers for Disease Control, Health and Human Services.
Well, I guess the big consolation prize for the good folks of New Orleans is that at least the EPA isn't flat out lying to them about the quality of the soil, unlike what they did after 9/11 to the people in Manhattan.
Late last year, Jim Lehrer did a segment on Katrina-related environmental hazards, which contained some of the following quotes:
John Cardarelli, health physicist with the EPA, "We're concerned about particulates -- things go in and deposit just about the bulk of your neck and we're also looking at specific particulate matter that can do deeper into your lungs."
The EPA has not done any tests inside private homes or on yards. Instead, they've concentrated their efforts in public areas. The agency has posted results of all its tests on its website, and they show few dangerous levels of toxins for short-term exposure, meaning 24 hours or less.
EPA's partner, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality says its tests have produced "unremarkable" results. An official told the NewsHour that "people have nothing to worry about." But at the same time both agencies have warned residents not to come in contact with flood sediment.
Um, ok, so it is safe but not safe....
Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council, thinks the EPA is confusing people with a mixed message.
ERIK OLSON: How can it be safe and then in the next sentence you say that you've got to wear protective equipment? It's not safe for people to be running around and traipsing around in these toxic chemicals and in these clouds of dust and in houses that are soaking with toxins. There are a lot of toxic chemicals, a lot of bacteria that are still in the environment there. There's dust that is toxic that is sprinkled across the city and it's kicked up every time there's demolition or cars driving by.
As for the CDC recommendations, let's just say that they ain't too pretty:
- Reinhabiting homes with visible oil contamination is not recommended because of the potential for skin exposure to oil substances. If people choose to reenter the affected area before remediation, they should take precautions to avoid contact with oil substances. Sensitive individuals, including children and people with recently healed or open wounds, should avoid all exposure to oil substances.
- Because children are more likely to be exposed to contaminated soil, local officials should consider restricting children from entering areas containing oil-related waste.
- Residents may be exposed to soil contaminants from contact with their pets; therefore, local officials should consider restricting pets from entering oil-contaminated areas.
- ATSDR endorses Louisiana 's guidance to protect people from exposure to oil substances who choose to reenter properties before clean-up and remediation activities are completed. This protective guidance recommends the following:
o Protect your skin from contacting oil.
o Use oil resistant gloves.(Oil may dissolve latex gloves. Use another type of glove.)
o Keep arms and legs covered.
o Wear coveralls or clothing that can be left at the oil-contaminated residence.
o If you get oil on skin, (immediately) wash with soap and water.
o Wear boot covers or leave work boots at the oil-contaminated residence.
o Open doors and windows to ventilate the oil-contaminated residence.
o Do not transport oil contaminated items from the oil-contaminated residence to noncontaminated locations.
- ATSDR recommends workers cleaning up oil-contaminated property should wear appropriate protective clothing. Petroleum products can degrade some synthetic materials and fabrics, so oil-resistant protective footwear, gloves, and clothing should be used.
To take a quote from the "Church Lady", well isn't that special. The CDC recommends not to go back or to restrict touching anything or basically breathing. And to tie this back to my diary from the other day about FEMA kicking out volunteers, you get the distinct feeling that Kanye West may have really been onto something, although it is more of a not caring about black people, poor people, or anyone outside of his criminal and crony circle.