The oil spills are on par with the Exxon Valdez, in addition there are environmental toxins and raw sewage. Hurricane Katrina is about to become America's biggest environmental disaster ever.
The oil spills are approaching the quantities released in the Exxon Valdez accident, hundreds of landfills with toxins are out of control, and the flood waters carry these environmental toxins with them and contaminate 160,000 homes.
New Orleans' flooded areas are now exposed to extremely high levels of sewage bacteria and lead, and somewhat lower but still dangerous levels of environmental toxins such as mercury, pesticides and other chemicals. This will contaminate the soil when the water is pumped away, or it will disturb the already heavily involved ecosystem in Lake Pontchartrain.
The Coast Guard has reported seven large oil spills from refineries and tank facilities in southern Louisiana, and in total there is talk of over 25 million liters of oil. This is approx. 60% of what escaped into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989.
In addition to these quantities, petrol and oil come from petrol stations and over 300,000 cars that are under water, and this amounts to around half a million more litres. In addition, there are hundreds of other small and undetected emissions. So far, 396 oil spills have been reported to the coastguard's emergency telephone. More than three-quarters of these emissions have not yet been dealt with.
The size of the oil spills was discovered when laboratories were to analyze the levels of poison in areas that had been dried up - there was so much oil in the soil that it was impossible to analyze other substances!
The Exxon Valdez accident is the very point of reference for hopeless environmental disasters. Katrina has left Louisiana with roughly the same amount of oil spills, but in addition there is raw sewage, cancer-causing pollutants, questionable mixtures of lubricating oil from railway workshops and hypertoxic pesticides.
Stephen L. Johnson of the Environmental Protection Agency - EPA (equivalent to SFT) admitted that this is very serious at a press conference in Washington, but he would not say anything about when people could return. There may be talk of reducing the requirement for cleanliness in the soil in some places, but this will in practice turn these areas into industrial areas. But he said the experience of 9/11 in Manhattan meant there was no rush to declare areas safe.
In addition to the water pollution, there are enormous amounts of building waste with environmentally hazardous substances that are spread out. Freshwater biologist Thomas W. LaPoint of the University of North Texas said environmental disasters like Love Canal and Times Beach (some of America's worst toxic dumps) may turn out to be simple cases compared to what they are now facing. In Love Canal, the pollutants were limited to a small area, now they are spread over huge areas. - I cannot imagine that it is possible to analyse, clean up and let people back before next summer, i.e. half a year or 9 months ahead, he said.
In the entire hurricane area, there are 466 industrial sites that had large quantities of dangerous chemicals before the hurricane, and the authorities are now getting an overview of how things are at these now. There are also five so-called Superfund sites, i.e. landfills with serious environmental toxins, of which 4 have been visually inspected but not checked further, while the last one is still under water. The last place, which is called Agricultural Street, has houses and a school built on it.
The rescue crews have so far picked up more than 5,000 liquid containers with gases, chemicals and medical waste.
There are also dangers in the air. An EPA plane with air pollution monitoring equipment detected a plume of smoke containing chlorinated acetic acid, an industrial chemical and herbicide that is highly toxic to inhale. The source turned out to be an open 200 liter barrel.
Willie Fontenot, a retired Louisiana attorney who has worked to help local people fight the state's big polluters, says this disaster shows the EPA's hopeless task. - There is no aid apparatus in the US that is set up to handle a disaster of this magnitude, he says. - This is miles beyond our comprehension, but it is high time that someone set up such an aid apparatus, he says.
The task at present is to pump billions of gallons of highly polluted water into Lake Pontchartrain. This lake is America's second largest saltwater lake, which was just beginning to come to a halt after an ecological collapse. The Corps of Engineers have laid bilges to prevent some of the oil from reaching the lake, but they are unable to stop the sewage and chemicals. A water sample taken had lead levels over 56 times higher than the drinking water requirement. A likely source is lead that has been added to paint. But there are many substances that are found at levels below the drinking water requirement, however this does not mean that it is healthy. E.g. is the requirement for 2,4-D, a herbicide, set at 70 micrograms/litre. This level is not set because it is healthy, but because current treatment technology cannot reasonably provide lower values, says the EPA.
These toxins will also reach the coast, and enter the food chain there. This will cause fish and shellfish to become inedible. E.g. many water samples have mercury levels well above the level set to prevent fish from getting too high mercury levels. And there is still a lot that we don't know enough about. E.g. many of the environmental toxins are fat-soluble, and that makes it pointless to measure the levels in water. One therefore has to measure in fat tissue in animals, and it is an open question how much environmental toxins people can get in via inhalation, eating or through the skin.
One of those who have understood the seriousness of the problem is JT Ewing, who makes a living by handling environmentally hazardous waste from oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. Now he works as a rescue crew in New Orleans, and says: We drive straight as if the boat is stuck on the roof of a car or a fence. Normally we would put our foot out and push ourselves free, but now nobody dares to do this unless they have rubber boots on their feet, he says.
All this is a result of global warming. Tropical hurricanes occur when the water masses have a higher temperature than 26 degrees down in the depths, and climate scientists believe that there will be fewer, but more powerful hurricanes as a result of the warming. Is it perhaps time for the US to recognize the climate problems? The disaster in New Orleans would also not have reached this scale if it had not been for the channeling of the Mississippi, which we have previously reported. And if President Bush had not gone to war against Iraq, because he took funds from the national security to wage war in Iraq. So here the Americans have got their own politics right in the middle of nowhere.
The question is whether something similar can happen in Norway? Perhaps not from the same period, but here too it is predicted that there will be more and heavier downpours. During the flood in Eastern Norway 10 years ago, there were also old toxic industrial sites that were flooded so that the toxins spread. So Norwegian municipalities and businesses should certainly carry out HSE and ROS investigations (ROS = Risk and Vulnerability analyses) to be a precaution, especially those located near rivers and water.