U.S. Water News Online
MOBILE, Ala. -- Hurricane Katrina's deadly
debris-scattering slam into the Gulf Coast left messy fuel spills,
leaky sunken vessels and toxic chemical threats across a broad,
The multi-agency task force attempting to carry out the cleanup
faced a storm of new obstacles with the arrival of Hurricane Rita,
which spread more debris as it churned in from the Gulf of Mexico.
But even before Rita, scientists said they have never encountered
such a catastrophe as Katrina.
"At this point, we're not sure what's out there," said marine
scientist Russell Callender, director of NOAA's Center for Coastal
Monitoring and Assessment program.
NOAA and its federal partners will soon begin sampling and
analyzing waters and sediments from Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne,
the Mississippi Sound and the outfalls of the Mississippi Delta,
looking for signs of contamination.
The testing will continue quarterly for the next year, he said.
"We really don't have a good picture at this point in terms of how
big the problem might be," Callender said.
Sheer numbers tell part of the story: The cleanup covers 140,000
square miles of waterways and coastal zones, including nearly 6,400
miles of zigzagging shoreline. But David Dorian, an Atlanta-based
environmental engineer at EPA, says the most dangerous elements are
not necessarily the big ones, such as submerged, leaking vessels.
One particular hazard: chlorine cylinders found in the debris
dislodged from water treatment plants.
"Chlorine is quite deadly," he said.
Some cylinders had washed up in residential areas, posing a threat
to returning residents and contractors arriving to help in the
As storm debris piles grow, inspectors will mark the ones with
hazardous materials, Dorian said, so they can be separated out before
Lt. Cmdr. Jim Elliot of the Coast Guard's Gulf Strike Team said at
least 400 sunken or damaged vessels in Alabama and Mississippi have
been assessed and photographed in the wake of Katrina. The
Mobile-based team is trying to track down their owners, and a similar
effort based in Baton Rouge is underway for Louisiana waters.
Most of the vessels targeted for removal have been in hard-hit
Mississippi -- at Pass Christian, the Industrial Canal of Biloxi and
the Pascagoula River area.
In Alabama, Elliot said 72 fishing vessels in Bayou La Batre were
damaged or submerged by Katrina. Ten of those vessels in the fishing
village were being pulled out of the water because of fuel leaks.
Elliot said federal officials try to find the owners before taking
charge of a vessel in distress.
"If it's a hazard to human health or the environment, we will take
care of the situation, pump out the oil and take off the hazardous
material," he said.
If it's cost-effective for the government, the vessel also could
be removed from the water, taking care to protect the environment.
If there's a vessel stranded in a wetland, for example, before
they dredge out a channel to get the boat out, all options must be
weighed. There are some environmental permit issues involved in
salvaging a vessel.
"That's why we're contacting owners to see what their intentions
are," Elliot said.
The Gulf Strike Team, organized more than 30 years ago, has
handled at least 575 cases of hazardous materials and oil pollution
in Alabama and Mississippi caused by Katrina.
Alabama Department of Environmental Management officials on the
team said they closely monitored 73 public water systems -- all
disrupted to some extent by Katrina. Recently, all of those systems
were operating again.
In Louisiana, environmental threats have included 7.4 million
gallons of oil discharged from tank storage plants. Coast Guard
officials said 7.1 million gallons of it had been recovered -- either
contained or naturally dispersed. Nearly 800 contractors responded to
the 11 major and medium spills in Louisiana.
The number of sunken vessels in Louisiana waters was not
Besides the Coast Guard, the cleanup team includes the
Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as state
Commercial and private contractors also have been hired for the
cleanup, with the biggest challenges in Mississippi -- a large
above-ground fuel tank that contained 1.7 million gallons of
gasoline, a pool chemical manufacturer and hospitals' biological
In Alabama, Elliot said, Katrina-damaged fishing vessels caused
the most problems.
The Katrina cleanup comes on the heels of another. Elliot recalled
that it took about eight months to clean up after Hurricane Ivan
struck last September.
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