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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Toxic Warning

Air Date: Week of October 14, 2005

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We hear from local officials and residents of a housing development that was built atop New Orleans' old Agriculture Street Landfill. The EPA has placed health risk warning signs in the area because of high levels of bacteria and toxicity.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

SAMUELS: Yes, this is my place. Like Vietnam, a horrible mess. I wasn’t prepared for what I see. I had hoped that when I came here, I was just going to have a little something. There’s nothing to even salvage.

CURWOOD: Kemberly Samuels came back to what used to be a home.

SAMUELS: Oh Lord, have mercy.

CURWOOD: Home was a housing development built atop New Orleans’ old Agriculture Street Landfill. This area was a city dump in the 1960s before it was filled in, capped, and homes like Samuel's built on it. Samuel’s neighborhood was, like many, flooded by a levee breach during Hurricane Katrina. Now, home is something she can only visit with gloves, boots, and a facemask.

SAFETY ANNOUNCEMENT: Limit your contact with floodwater. Don’t even breathe mists from contaminated water. When cleaning, wear gloves, goggles and a respirator or a dust mask.

CURWOOD: The Environmental Protection Agency is airing public service announcements to warn returning residents of potential risks. Amid the concerns, there is some good news though. The most recent study of floodwater quality, by Louisiana State University, found high levels of bacteria and toxic metals, but study leader John Pardue says the levels were not as toxic as previously thought.

PARDUE: We were so concerned that that water was essentially a hazardous waste that might have been even acutely toxic to people who were in the water. And I think what our results show is that the water’s most like the normal storm water that runs through the city. It does have some contamination in it, but nothing that rises to the level of a concern for people who might have been wading around in that water. From a chemical standpoint. From a bacteriological or a pathogen standpoint, we can’t speak to that. Our suspicion is that the material that’s left behind is more toxic than the water was.

CURWOOD: What’s left behind is what Wilma Subra is studying. She runs an independent testing company based in Louisiana. She sampled the sediment in five New Orleans neighborhoods, and found three sites, including Agriculture Street, with levels of arsenic, benzene, and petroleum hydrocarbons at three to ten times the EPA’s residential standards.

SUBRA: We’re also finding some of those same components in the floodwaters that were remaining at Agriculture Street, about the middle of September. Now, those floodwaters have all drained off or evaporated, and the toxins are still there in the sedimenty sludge layer.

CURWOOD: Ms. Subra says the Agriculture Street area should be classified as an hazardous waste site, and says the EPA should be doing more to protect residents.

SUBRA: They should be coming up with a mechanism to go in there and remove the contaminated sedimenty sludge out of these residential areas before they allow the people to go back in and become contaminated with this material.

 

 

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