Katrina and the Environment
Americans are familiar with the physical and social devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. They may be less familiar with the possible long-lasting environment damage left in its wake. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that Katrina triggered 575 petroleum and hazardous chemical spills. According to the U.S. Coast Guard the ten biggest Katrina-related oil spills amounted to about 8 million gallons. But the environmental challenges don't end there. In addition, toxicologists and public health experts worry that the result of some clean-up efforts will spill toxic wastes into the Gulf of Mexico possibly causing grave damage to marine and animal life and the coastal wetlands.
In January 2006, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported on the hazards resulting from oil spills:
Crude oil contains several substances that pose both short-term and long-term dangers to humans, including benzene and chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs...Most scientists agree that if a spill evaporates completely or is cleaned up thoroughly, there are few long-term risks. But if all oil isn't removed -- or if it soaks into soil or enclosed areas and its chemical components release slowly -- danger can persist.-- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, January 3, 2006
The Case of Chalmette
One of the worst spills, the Murphy Oil Spill, took place in Chalmette, Louisiana. According to the EPA, nearly 1.1 million gallons, leaked into the residential area of town. Chalmette was once a bustling community of 32,000 people, now it is a virtual ghost town. Responsibility for cleaning up the area fell mainly on the Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana environmental agencies the process is a time-consuming one. On November 8, 2006, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released an assessment of the health hazards of the Murphy spill. The report concluded that people should not reoccupy their homes before their properties were cleaned of oil.
Murphy Oil is compensating homeowners for the damage the refinery caused, if they agree not to take part in a class action suit. The company says about 5,400 people have accepted the offer, and it has paid out more than 50 million dollars in settlements so far.
NOW has traveled to Chalmette several times in the last several years. In July 2005, NOW reported on the vulnerability of gasoline plants like those in Chalmette to terrorist attack. NOW returned to Chalmette in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane to check on the community. This week NOW returns to check in with residents now facing the long-term costs of rebuilding and cleaning up their community.
Find out more about the challenges below.
CDC: Health Consultation: Murphy Oil Spill
The Centers for Disease Control's report on the Murphy Oil Spill and cleanup activities conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA & NOAA Lead Assessment of Hurricane Katrina's Impact on Coastal Waters
Details of the joint project of the Environmental Protection Agency and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency to assess environmental impacts of Katrina.
Murphy Oil Corporation
Murphy Oil Corporation's information on Katrina-related spills and cleanup efforts. The site also contains information on the class action suit and claims settlement process.
NRDC: New Orleans Environmental Quality Test Results
Results from a study by a Natural Resources Defense Council scientific team which traveled to New Orleans in October 2005 and again in November to investigate potential health threats in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Additional Sources: "After Katrina: The toxic timebomb," Andrew Gumbel and Rupert Cornwell, THE INDEPENDENT UK. September 7, 2005; Polluted Options: Katrina Oil Spill Clouds Future Of Battered Suburb --- Health Concerns Loom Large For Waiting Homeowners; No Clear Official Guidance," Betsy McKay, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, January 3, 2006.