A soup bowl of toxics

We’re beginning to hear about the enormous amount of toxic contamination in and around New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the reports have focussed on contamination from sewage.

However, New Orleans and that area of the Gulf Coast have long been surrounded by a soup bowl of toxic materials of petroleum, heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides.

the Mississsippi was one of the world’s most polluted rivers, draining nearly 40% of America’s landmass. In 1990, Mississippi basin farmers applied 21bn pounds of fertilizer and 283m pounds of pesticides. The run-off of nutrients starves the water of oxygen and creates the world’s largest “dead zone” off the Louisiana coast. This year it expanded to an estimated 8,000 square miles.

Lake Ponchartrain, on the other side of NO is not much better. It’s been a historical dumping ground for sewer plants, dairy farmers, and recreational boaters, rendering the lake unavailable to swimmers until cleanup began at the late 1990s.

That’s just agricultural and human waste. The hardest hit area of Orleans and Plaquemines Parishes sits at the stretch of the polluted lower Mississippi where some 140 oil and petrochemical plants are clustered together. It’s called Cancer Alley, so called for the high incidence of varying types of cancers that afflict its primarily poor and black residents. A lot of that has washed into the floodwaters.

Locally, gasoline, diesel and oil leaking from underground storage tanks at gas stations also poses a problem. Add to that oil and gas bubbling up from the sunken fishing, pleasure and cargo ships. This fuel is creating a deadzone for fish and wildlife.

(Don’t forget the natural gas erupting from burst underground lines, which is causing fires all over the area.)

The biggest needs at the moment are clean drinking water and making the area minimally habitable. So incredible effort is being made to get rid of the water by pumping it into Lake Ponchartrain. However, we’re just removing one problem to create an environmental time bomb. According to geographer Chris Wells, who works for the US Geological Survey:

“The New Orleans area that was flooded was an industrial area where you have all the lubricants and batteries and heavy-metal plating — it’s just hideously dangerous,” … “We can’t wait around to test the floodwater before we pump it back into the lake — people are already dying of disease from it — but it’s a terrible thing to do. We’re going to avoid a great human disaster by doing this, but we could be creating a damn big environmental one.” Forget for a moment the scenario of a toxic lake in the middle of a major American city; should a future hurricane breach the levees again, New Orleans could literally be submerged in poison.

Just another example of our modern lifestyles comprising the ingredients of a toxic soup we then have to live in. Sorry, the poor among us have to live in.

Update: Apparently the US federal government may not be able to find out the ingredients of this soup as they’ve excluded the Environmental Protection Agency from cabinet level talks on the aftermath of Katrina.

Comments are closed.