Three Superfund toxic waste sites in and around New Orleans were flooded by Hurricane Katrina and one remains underwater, Environmental Protection Agency officials said yesterday, adding that they will soon start investigating whether hazardous materials are leaching into the environment.
Although the agency is focused on conducting search-and-rescue missions and taking floodwater samples from the city at large rather than from waste sites, officials have begun to monitor the potential danger. The Agriculture Street Landfill in New Orleans, where city residents dumped their trash for decades, is still underwater. In the nearby suburbs, the Bayou Bonfouca site in Slidell, La., and the Madisonville Creosote Works site also sustained flooding.
Local environmental activists, who are concerned that two Superfund sites in neighboring Mississippi may also have sustained water damage, said federal authorities are not moving fast enough to assess the public health threat.
The uncertainties surrounding how the storm affected hazardous waste sites -- EPA administrator Steve Johnson said his agency had yet to determine if any of their protective shields had been degraded -- highlights the challenges facing any future cleanup. The Gulf Coast has long been a magnet for chemical plants and waste dumps, some of which shut down after becoming too contaminated in recent years.
"We don't know if there's a problem or not," Johnson said, adding that officials will begin sampling soil and water from the sites when they have a chance. "We are taking appropriate steps to understand what we're dealing with. There's just a lot of work to be done."
Darryl Malek-Wiley, a Sierra Club organizer in Louisiana who has spent years working on the cleanup of the Agriculture Street Landfill two miles north of the central business district, said he is particularly concerned about that site because the city encouraged first-time black home buyers to move there in the 1970s. Federal officials placed the site on Superfund's National Priorities List in 1994.
"What's happening, we don't know. If EPA says they know, they're lying," Malek-Wiley said, adding that the agency has done more to protect Superfund sites in wealthier areas. "What it says is the federal government's approach to cleanup is that they do a better job in rich counties than in poor counties."
Several scientists and environmental experts said it was likely the rush of water, much of which remains trapped inside New Orleans, had infiltrated the waste sites and absorbed a range of contaminants. In the Agriculture Street Landfill, federal authorities replaced the top two feet of contaminated soil in residents' yards and laid down a layer of protective sheeting four years ago, but standing water could leach into the dirt over time.
"Very few facilities are designed to withstand this kind of severe flooding," said Lynn Goldman, who served as assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances under President Bill Clinton and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "You have to get in there and do an assessment of what the damage is."
Randy Deitz, an attorney adviser in the EPA's Office of Solid Waste Management and Emergency Response, said federal officials took steps when cleaning up the Gulf Coast sites to protect them from future storm damage. But he added, "In the case of a catastrophe, sometimes all the engineering in the world is not going to prevent some erosion."
Although federal authorities have yet to conduct a formal count, several former EPA officials said they could not recall a single flood affecting so many Superfund sites since at least the early 1990s, when the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers overflowed simultaneously.
Sylvia Lowrance, who headed the EPA's hazardous waste management program and worked at the agency for nearly a quarter-century, said she could not remember a time when a Superfund site "was literally underwater. This is certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, environmental and public health disasters we've faced in modern times."
The flooded Superfund sites in Louisiana and Mississippi contain a range of contaminants that include heavy metals linked to increased cancer risk and developmental problems and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens.
Richard T. Di Giulio, who heads Duke University's Superfund Basic Research Center, said when a toxic site is flooded, the contaminants could seep into surface water and the surrounding soil.
EPA officials said they could not determine whether serious flooding had affected two waste sites in Mississippi, a wood treating plant in Picayune and a chemical fixation facility in Harrison County along the Louisiana border. Both areas were hit by massive storm surges during the hurricane, but local activists said they had not had a chance to survey the sites.
Environmentalists said they feared many functioning chemical plants in the area also experienced damage during the storm, but dozens of operators have reported they have emerged unscathed. Dorothy Kellogg, director for security and operations at the American Chemistry Council, said of the 40 companies she had surveyed, none had reported environmental releases.
"In terms of the environment, things seem to be pretty good," Kellogg said, adding that plant operators took precautions before the hurricane hit to protect their supplies. "The companies had plans in place, and the plans worked."