A Toxic Gumbo

Food for thought…

Contaminated floodwaters and air pollution have devastated the Gulf Coast ecosystem. As Hurricane Katrina victims try to rebuild their lives after one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the environmental impact remains a looming threat.

In the coming weeks and months, all eyes will be on the clean-up and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. Many have concerns over the environment and the well known fact that the Bush administration has turned back the clock on many environmental protections. Instead of having people who actually care about the environment in the key agencies that oversee environmental concerns, Bush has filled those positions with corporate energy whores. Many are speaking out, but we need to make certain those voices are heard…

An environmental expert warns residents about the hazards of returning to New Orleans—now home to a dangerous brew of toxic chemicals and bacteria.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response with 35 years of experience at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, addressed his concerns with NEWSWEEK’s Bao Ong. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you think about the mayor of New Orleans saying he’ll reopen the city in the coming days?

Hugh Kaufman: The mayor said New Orleans will “breathe again.” Yeah, they’ll breathe bacteria, viruses and volatizing toxic chemicals. There is no environmental assessment. I mean, you can’t even make a determination of the risk factor. But more important, we don’t know what to tell the public in terms of what their risk is when they come back. The public thinks it’s safe. It’s one of the more reckless and irresponsible government decisions made in the last decade. Second only to [former EPA chief] Christie Todd Whitman after [the] World Trade towers came down [saying], “We’ve tested the air and it’s safe. So ya’ll come back.” And now [some] of the people that came back are sick as dogs.

NEWSWEEK: What do you think the government is basing its decisions on?

Hugh Kaufman: There is no environmental characterization that has been accomplished. There’s been a lot of political spin but no valid environmental assessment to determine the amount of hazardous material, bacteria and viruses that are in the air, in the muck and in the dust that the people would be exposed to 24/7 when they go back.

NEWSWEEK: Can you talk more specifically about these toxins and they risks they pose?

Hugh Kaufman: You’ve got oil and petroleum products, which have toxic constituents that have been documented to cause cancer. You have other chemicals coming from landfills and Superfund sites that haven’t been documented. You’ve documented chromium, arsenic and lead, which with some of the other toxic chemicals can cause birth defects, spontaneous abortions, illness—short term and long term—and asthma. Until a thorough assessment is completed of the three pathways—air, direct contact and ingestion of hazardous materials—until that assessment has been done, nobody can quantify how many more cancers, how many more deaths will occur down the line as a result of precipitous interaction with these hazardous and toxic materials that are ever present in that region of the country.

NEWSWEEK: What kind of rebuilding programs will these Gulf Coast cities need to recover?

Hugh Kaufman: They’ll need tens of billions of dollars of federal money to clean up and rebuild and to take care of the folks who have been harmed by this. It’ll be like the Marshall Plan was in Berlin. Or like we said we were going to do for Iraq.

The entire Newsweek interview can be found here.

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4 Responses to A Toxic Gumbo

  1. Ginny in CO says:

    For anyone as shallowly aware of this field as I am, there was no question from the beginning that this would be an environmental catastrophe. Too many variables, interactions, types of contaminants (microbial, chemical, air and water) and too many unknowns.

    My ex is an environmental engineer, works with hazardous ( not toxic) waste. In cleaning up hazardous sites, he has to be able to recognize if it is actually toxic and needs to be put into the Superfund cleanup.

    One site Alan worked on, he did have to bring the EPA in to close it down for Superfund clean up. He and the head of the Chemistry Dept at UAA had run every test possible on the dirt that was being dug up. They could not identify the chemical that came up on the gas chromatograph analysis and others. The site was on the AFB, and their reps insisted they had no knowledge of what was used there. All that was “known” was that the building had had multiple uses over the decades. (Alan, being an USAF brat who had lived on the base as a teenager, was more than pi**ed)

    A milder version of the NOLA situation. Many chemicals spilled into the soil over the years, combining in an unknown reaction. The result: the workers doing the cleanup would start feeling ill within a few hours of starting. Alan kept upgrading their protective gear to no avail. I can’t remember how long it took him to get it shut down,
    I’m thinking at least 3 weeks. And then, after at least 6 weeks of 12- 16 hour days, he never got paid. He got blacklisted for doing it. Being self – employed in a rather small town, it was pretty much a death blow to his business.

    I have been giving Nagin a lot of benefit of the doubt – this had to be overwhelming beyond comprehension. And I know everyone wants to have hope and get started on rebuilding ASAP. It won’t help any if they rush in where angels fear to tread. He needs to get this reality before he feeds the unrealistic hopes any more.

    Kaufman sounds like one of those dedicated civil servants who knows his field and ought to be in a more responsible position – except that he knows his job and BushCo never uses those people for responsible positions.

    I’m still hoping this whole thing will actually give us the ice water awakening and determination to start paying attention, getting involved and finding effective solutions to our problems.

  2. Ginny in CO says:

    Pamela,

    Really, the whores are not two faced about their business…nor do they impact a very large section of the population with deceit. Their clients may deceive wives, etc.

    I just don’t think they deserve to have this level of scum compared to them.

    Ok, a little less sarcasm.. Something that keeps coming to mind is from Robert McNamara in “Fog of War” (a must see if you haven’t) One of his lessons was on
    “Proportionality” On the same concept ot “let the punishment fit the crime”

    Although his perspective had to do with the “overkill” military actions in Japan,
    I tend to look at the whole GOP vs Democratic wrongdoing as a proportionality issue.
    Sure the Dems made stupid mistakes, abused power, wasted money. That goes with
    being human, having power, and not enough people paying attention.

    The GOP makes the Democrats a cup in the bucket.

  3. Ginny

    When we compare this with places like Love Canal, we have to understand that there will some sort of effect down the road on the people who move back there. Let alone those in there now doing the clean up. Many first responders to 9/11 ended up sick and that was not close to a toxic soup.

  4. Ginny in CO says:

    Pamela,

    Alan’s first job after he finished his Masters was for Hooker Chemicals! We were in town looking for housing the day Jane was doing her Oscar performance for the media.
    The short version of that experience is that while Hooker certainly had some major negligence in their history, the Love Canal was actually one of the things they did right….

    It was made a disaster by the city and the contractor who built HUD housing – with basements breaking the clay barrier over the toxic substances. And the people in the area who bought them, The waste sites were well known – even one as old as the Love canal. The neighborhood it was built in (but not over the waste) was close enough to “Chemical Row” that they had to repaint their houses every 2 years – because the paint couldn’t withstand the chemicals in the air.

    Guess what we had done during summers to make $ for school? House painting. Even then, it should have lasted 8 years.

    Like all of these things, it was a lot more complex than what hit the media.