The Bush administration was accused Thursday by senators in both parties of minimizing health hazards from the toxic soup left by Hurricane Katrina, just as they said it did with air pollution in New York from the Sept. 11 attacks.
More than a month after the storm, compounded by Hurricane Rita, Environmental Protection Agency officials said 1 million people lack clean drinking water around New Orleans. Some 70 million tons of hazardous waste remain on the Gulf Coast.
While EPA officials have warned of serious health hazards from bacteria, chemicals and metals in the region’s floodwaters and sediment, they haven’t taken a position on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s aggressive push to reopen the city.
“EPA may not be providing people with the clear information they need,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “EPA should be clear about the actual risks when people return to the affected areas for more than one day.”
Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also were skeptical of post-Katrina work being done by EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The people of New Orleans need to feel safe, need to feel like there’s a plan,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
High levels of toxins
The committee’s chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed skepticism about the two-page government handouts on environmental and public health risks that EPA helped compile.
“It bothers me a little bit,” Inhofe said. “How many people are going to see the report?”
EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock said thousands of copies are being delivered door-to-door, at relief centers and other public places.
But Peacock acknowledged “room for improvement” in handling the Katrina cleanup and recovery. Agency workers first helped save 800 people’s lives, he said, shifted to contaminant monitoring and then began focusing on long-range cleanups.
“We’ve been through a sprint, and now we’re staging a marathon,” he said. EPA is now assessing 54 Superfund toxic waste sites in the paths of Katrina and Rita. So far, Peacock said, there have been no signs of chemicals released or ruptures in the waste containers.
Samples of floodwater and sediment in the Gulf Region have shown high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, metals, fuel oils, arsenic and lead. Air monitoring has shown high levels of ethylene and glycol. EPA said the results are “snapshots” that can quickly change.
Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., called the government’s response to Katrina “apparent chaos.”
Both he and Boxer recalled the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when the White House directed EPA officials to minimize the health risk posed by the cloud of smoke from the World Trade Center collapse. Within 10 days of those attacks, EPA issued five news releases reassuring the public about air quality without testing for contaminants such as PCBs and dioxin.
It was only nine months later — after respiratory ailments began showing up in workers cleaning up the debris and residents of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn — that EPA could point to any scientific evidence, saying then that air quality had returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
“I hope that we’re not seeing history repeat itself,” said Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.