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Did some in New Orleans return too soon?

Residents in and around New Orleans are busy rebuilding, but environmental activists are accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of playing down the health risks of returning to some areas.
This street in Chalmette, a suburb southeast of New Orleans, was not only flooded by Hurricane Katrina, but it also was covered in contaminants from a nearby oil refinery spill.
This street in Chalmette, a suburb southeast of New Orleans, was not only flooded by Hurricane Katrina, but it also was covered in contaminants from a nearby oil refinery spill.Environmental Protection Agency
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New Orleans is bustling with salvage operations and plans to raise the city from the ruins of Katrina. But if environmental activists had been in charge of the cleanup, the recovery would have looked a lot different.

Bowing to anxious residents, local officials have opened the city and its suburbs for rebuilding.

Activists see that pressure as natural, but they are angry that the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t step in and halt the return of people in the worst-hit areas until scientists had a better idea of the extent of contamination in the wreckage, air and soil.

They accuse the agency of leaving the false impression that all areas were safe for return when in fact only a limited number of neighborhoods were tested, and of not stressing in public announcements this basic fact: The test results released in the first two months after Katrina are not an indicator of long-term health risks.

“The EPA and other health agencies should immediately broaden the environmental testing that is done,” Kim Dunn Chapital, director of Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, told the Senate Environment Committee last Wednesday.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and other officials say they received assurances from the EPA before reopening neighborhoods when fetid flood waters receded.

“We waited until we got a written report from the EPA” for each area, Nagin testified before the same Senate committee. “I kept asking for written reports and there was a reluctance to grant those,” he added, but they were eventually delivered.

He conceded, however, that the strategy was “somewhat risky” given the health concerns.

The case of benzene
At issue is how to test for contaminants inside homes, on streets and in lawns, and then how to publicize those results.

Take benzene. Refineries make the colorless liquid from crude oil, and it is used as a gasoline additive, among other things. But benzene can also cause leukemia if exposure is long-term, and it has been detected in the air and sediment in parts of New Orleans, home to many refineries and chemical plants.

Figuring emergency responders would not face long exposures to contaminants, the EPA compared initial benzene samples to the limits for one-day exposure.

That limit is 50 parts benzene per billion parts air. Anything below that is considered safe if exposure is just for one day. The limit drops to 4 parts per billion when exposure is over a two-week period.

Only one tested site was above 50, a neighborhood in the suburb of Chalmette where floodwaters damaged a refinery storage tank, causing a major spill.

But activists say that most residents aren’t likely to return home for just a day, and that limits for two-week exposure should have been used — and publicized.

In testimony before Congress in September, Erik Olson, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that the initial EPA sampling found 14 sites with benzene levels twice the two-week limit of 4 ppb standard, ranging from 8.2 to 21 ppb.

Publicizing the results
Activists also question how the EPA has publicized its findings. The EPA’s first news release on the air sampling concluded that “the screening results indicated that chemical concentrations in most areas are below ... health standards of concern.”

The same news release did end with a caveat, however: “As this is a dynamic situation, general conclusions should not be made regarding air safety based on results from this snapshot of data.”

So why, then, would the EPA announce these results at all, the activists ask?

EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher told that “these values are appropriate for the intended use ... as an initial screening tool.”

The primary purpose of the initial samples was “to inform response personnel” of potential emergencies, not residents of long-term risks, she said.

“EPA has begun a more extensive air sampling effort ... using monitoring equipment designed to provide data over an extended time period,” she said, adding that initial data from those samples should be available soon.

The agency has posted all test data online at allows the public to sign up for updates via e-mail.

Activists unconvinced
But the overall EPA approach doesn’t sit well with Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group active in the New Orleans area long before Katrina.

“I’ve got one word for it,” she said of the EPA’s testing: “Pathetic.”

“There certainly has not been enough sampling,” she said, and in the worst-hit areas, particularly Chalmette, “residents have no idea that EPA has done any sampling.”

Rolfes blames both local officials and the EPA, but she’s particularly livid with how the EPA in its initial news release described the Chalmette results as showing just “slightly elevated levels” of benzene and toluene, another refinery product used in paints and adhesives.

“You cannot call those slightly elevated,” she says of the readings, which reached 170 ppb. “That’s 40 times greater” than the two-week standard.

Was return too soon?
Wilma Subra, a chemist who has advised the EPA on pollution issues over the years, criticizes the EPA for not keeping residents out of certain areas longer.

“There is a need for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish cleanup levels and require that the cleanup levels be met before community members are allowed to return to the currently contaminated areas,” she said last month in releasing results of sediment sampling done for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Benzene, toluene and other contaminants turned up in the soil samples, the group said, not only in Chalmette but also New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and a neighborhood around a Superfund cleanup site. Both those areas are where many of the city's poor live and they were under water longer than most parts of the city.

The EPA has also tested soil and concluded that the contaminants detected were not an immediate health hazard.

Breathing it all in
Chapital told the Senate that “Katrina is still there” — in the pockets of water, dust and sediment.

A hazardous waste technician by training, Chapital said that right after Katrina hit she went to Red Cross centers, handing out respirators she had bought because officials weren’t doing so.

Residents “think they’ll have what they need” to deal with the cleanup, she said, “when in many instances they don’t.”

Activists say homes are the most immediate risk. “It’s kicked up in the form of dust and people are breathing it,” said Olson, the lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People breathe it all together, and when you get that type of combination it’s particularly dangerous for people with respiratory illnesses.”

But a longer-term hazard could be the lawns and playgrounds laced with contaminated sediment.

New Orleans officials have yet to decide on a plan for what’s been called “debris management.”

“The whole question of debris management is an open one,” Olson said. “Are you going to replace half the topsoil of New Orleans?”