US: Katrina Oil Spill Clouds Future Of Battered Suburb

Health Concerns Loom Large For Waiting Homeowners

Kevin Hopkins and his family have gutted and hosed down their three-bedroom brick ranch house in this devastated working-class suburb of New Orleans. They have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to park a trailer in their driveway. He and his wife have enrolled their two children in a recently opened temporary school. They are impatient to be back.

But they don't yet know whether it is safe to return. When the levees that protected the community gave way to Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, about 1,800 homes were inundated with floodwaters carrying nearly 1.1 million gallons of oil from a nearby refinery. Thick black crude seeped into homes and yards.

Officials sealed off the area. A private contractor hired by the refinery's owner, Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado, Ark., began cleaning up. But the crews left most homes and yards untouched for weeks until Murphy Oil could track down their scattered owners to seek permission to clean them, the oil company says. Four months after Katrina hit, oil remains in hundreds of homes and yards.

This heavily damaged community, which remains mostly abandoned, raises acute personal and public-policy questions: How can residents displaced by Katrina determine if it's safe to return to their homes, and when? And who ultimately should decide?

Here in St. Bernard Parish, neither federal nor state nor local officials have provided residents with any clear answers. Parish leaders and residents say they expected the federal Environmental Protection Agency to manage the cleanup process and determine when the neighborhood was safe. But the EPA says it's not up to it to decide whether the community should be resettled.

Chalmette lies near two refineries on a sinking neck of land protected from the Gulf of Mexico by an aging system of undersized levees. Thus far, all major decisions about whether to let people back in have been made by St. Bernard officials, who have little expertise in assessing pollution levels. They are eager, however, to see residents return. So the Hopkinses and hundreds of other families have been cleaning up themselves. Many simply assumed that if it was unsafe, authorities would stop them.

Hurricane Katrina triggered 575 petroleum and hazardous chemical spills, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Ten of the biggest spills in Louisiana caused by the hurricane add up to about eight million gallons, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. By comparison, about 11 million gallons leaked along Alaska's coast in 1989 in the Exxon Valdez accident.

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. Short-term exposure to benzene causes dizziness and nausea, and long-term exposure has been linked to leukemia and other maladies, according to the EPA. The agency says some PAH chemicals are carcinogens. Workers cleaning up spills normally wear protective gear such as respirators and gloves.

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. While much of the benzene has evaporated in this community, it isn't clear whether other dangerous residues have seeped into the soil and into buildings.

The NRDC and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, another environmental advocacy group, say cancer-causing contaminants may still remain in homes and yards and that resettling the area could be dangerous if it is not properly cleaned. These groups, along with some residents and local officials, fault the EPA for not pressing harder for a more complete cleanup right away and for not advising residents and local officials in clear terms whether the area is safe.

The EPA says it has kept the public properly informed about the health hazards of the Murphy Oil spill, and that it has pushed for the cleanup to be carried out as swiftly and completely as possible. "Given the circumstances, it's going well," says Thomas Dunne, acting assistant administrator for the agency's office of solid waste and emergency response.

A Mammoth Workload

The EPA has had a mammoth workload in the wake of Katrina. The agency is responsible for dealing with the hundreds of storm-related spills and for managing hazardous materials contained in the millions of cubic yards of debris left by the storm. Under federal disaster-response protocols adopted after 9/11, the EPA's work falls under a "coordinated response" led by FEMA.

The Murphy spill began when Katrina hit storage tank No. 250-2 at the company's largest U.S. refinery. Oil companies often fill storage tanks before hurricanes to weigh them down, which stabilizes them and helps prevent damage. But only 65,000 barrels of crude oil were in the 250,000-barrel tank when Katrina arrived, according to the EPA. Floodwaters rose to 18 feet, and the tank dislodged from its foundation. When the floodwater began to recede, about 25,110 barrels, or nearly 1.1 million gallons, leaked into the adjacent residential area, according to the EPA.

The U.S. Coast Guard took charge of the first phase of the cleanup, overseeing emergency responders working for Murphy Oil. The company's workers repaired the damaged tank and tried to contain the crude, skimming as much as they could from the receding water. After the water had drained, a thick, oily muck remained across a one-square-mile area. National Guard units cordoned off the area. Departing vehicles were sprayed with decontaminants.

Responsibility for supervising the cleanup on land fell to the EPA, which worked with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Most large oil spills occur on water, where oil generally floats to the surface and can be vacuumed up. In St. Bernard Parish, the oil seeped into homes and the soil. That made the cleanup "much harder," says the EPA's Mr. Dunne.

Murphy Oil moved quickly to reassure residents it was cleaning up the spill. "Much of the off-site spill has already evaporated or been recovered from public areas," wrote W. Michael Hulse, president of Murphy Oil USA Inc., a company subsidiary, in a Sept. 28 letter to St. Bernard "friends and neighbors." He announced a $5 million gift to the parish government, the school system, United Way recovery efforts, and a program to help reopen businesses.

Mr. Hopkins, a 41-year-old mechanic for an air-conditioning company, had evacuated in advance of Katrina. When he first returned to his home on Blanchard Drive in late September, it didn't look to him like much oil had evaporated. The fumes in his house, which is five blocks from the refinery, were overpowering. Two feet of oil-soaked, charcoal-colored sludge covered every inch of his floor. He developed a headache and got "really itchy," he recalls.

Despite the terrible scene, Mr. Hopkins felt he couldn't abandon his home. He had no flood insurance and still owed $35,000 on the mortgage. "I can't afford to go anywhere else," he says.

Local environmental activists were alarmed that residents were even visiting the area. EPA tests of the air in mid-September had detected unsafe levels of benzene. "People shouldn't even have been given an option to go back in," says Wilma Subra, an environmental chemist in New Iberia, La., who has served on EPA advisory committees.

The EPA's Mr. Dunne says the agency warned the public and parish officials about contamination and pointed residents to recommendations from health agencies that anyone entering the area should take precautions such as wearing oil-resistant gloves. "We've been very open in terms of what our position is," he says. Mr. Dunne says that only local leaders could decide when to allow residents to return to the area.

St. Bernard officials were eager to know whether affected residents could move back. Confusion about the cleanup and the health risks, among other things, was making it difficult for residents to make decisions. The more time that passed, the more officials worried that residents would settle elsewhere permanently. Joseph DiFatta Jr., chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Council, says he needed to know: "What do I have to do to make the area safe?"

Following an Oct. 4 parish council meeting, parish leaders asked the EPA to present a report at the next council meeting. But Samuel Coleman, a senior official with the EPA's south-central regional office, says the agency couldn't provide an assessment of the long-term impact at that time because it needed to gather and analyze more data. "We had to have time to look at that information," he says.

According to a Coast Guard report dated Oct. 13, about 110,000 gallons of oil, as much as 10% of the spill, still remained on the ground.

On Oct. 24, Mr. Hulse, Murphy Oil's president, sent a letter to residents that was posted on the parish's government Web site. The letter said that the company had reported to the Coast Guard that "nearly all of the oil spilled has now been recovered or evaporated." The letter added that the cleanup of public property by the company's contractor was "nearing completion." In a question-and-answer attachment, the company said the crude oil "will not present short-term or long-term health or safety concerns" after residual oil had been cleaned from homes and lots. It offered to clean oil from all homes and lawns, if owners granted permission and first emptied their homes of furniture, clothing and debris.

Settlements Offered

Murphy Oil faced class-action lawsuits in federal court in New Orleans on behalf of area homeowners. It offered settlements to residents that ranged from $11.50 to $12.60 per square foot of their homes, depending on the damage, plus $2,500 per person in each household, according to residents familiar with the offers. Those who settled would waive their rights to sue the company, these residents say. The offers irked lawyers representing plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits. They persuaded a federal judge to issue a court order requiring Murphy to advise property owners that they should consult a lawyer before agreeing to any settlement. Murphy declined to comment on the settlements.

In the absence of any official warnings, Mr. Hopkins decided it was time to begin fixing his home. He returned in late October with his wife Lori and their two children to begin working. There was still no electricity, and a curfew remained in effect. The fumes weren't as bad as they had been on his first visit, and the sidewalk and street looked cleaner. Across the street, a neighbor's small backyard pool was still full of oily water.

Mr. Hopkins and his 15-year-old son gutted the interior down to its structural framing, piling the debris on the curb. They wore rubber gloves and masks at first, but Mr. Hopkins quickly abandoned both. The mask made it hard to breathe. The gloves were too slippery from the oily muck.

Mr. Hopkins says the letter from Murphy Oil has left him confident there was nothing to worry about. "They say it evaporated, and it kind of feels like it did," he says.

Some other residents weren't so sure. One block from the Hopkins home, Anna and Richard Blanchard picked through their sludge-laden home, loading a few salvageable items into a small U-Haul trailer for the long ride to Huntsville, Ala., where they are resettling. "They tell us that short-term, it's OK here," said Mrs. Blanchard. "But what if in 20 years I get something and die from it?"

On Nov. 8, 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 eight-page report reiterated warnings about short-term exposure that EPA and state officials had given nearly two months earlier. The report concluded that people should not reoccupy their homes before their properties were cleaned of oil, and recommended keeping children and pets away from contaminated areas. It did not address long-term health concerns.

Two days later, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson and other agency officials said it was too early to know when the area would be safe and whether some of the homes could ever be reoccupied. The EPA expanded the footprint of the oil spill to include about 70 more homes, and ordered Murphy to redo some tests. "We had some concerns about what they had done, and asked them to resample some areas," says the EPA's Mr. Coleman. He declines to elaborate. EPA officials accompany Murphy's testing crews, and verify 10% of the samples in their own labs.

On Dec. 9, the CDC issued a second report analyzing samples from more than 800 homes. It concluded that most of the houses did not contain dangerous levels of oil-based contaminants.

Environmental activists and parish officials remained wary. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the NRDC, says the report didn't include samples of air inside homes or samples from below the surface of the soil, where oil may have seeped, she says. Some oil may have reached the groundwater, which could flow under homes and vaporize, releasing contaminants into homes, Dr. Solomon says. Some oil compounds can persist in the environment for years, she notes.

The CDC says it is now analyzing indoor air samples and soil samples from more yards, and will publish another report if its conclusions change. State environmental officials say groundwater will also be tested. On Dec. 22, the EPA released test results that show that soil around some homes is still contaminated. The agency says residents should continue to avoid contact with oil-contaminated sediment, and that it is still too early to determine whether some homes can be re-inhabited.

It's a moot issue for Mr. Hopkins, who is temporarily living in a trailer on the other side of New Orleans. He settled with Murphy Oil on Dec. 8, receiving a little more than $23,000 and a promise that the company will wash his house and replace his topsoil.

Although there is still no electricity on his street and he has received no official indication that his home is safe, he didn't think twice about settling. "I really need the money," he says.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 183 Environment
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