Contractors hired to begin cleanup of city

Natural drying by sun expected to help destroy dangerous germs outside

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hiring environmental engineering firms to begin mopping up the muddy gumbo of bacteria, sewage, lead and oil left by the floodwaters bathing New Orleans.

"This whole cleanup will be a monumental task," said Robert Martinson, an environmental section chief for the Army Corps in New Orleans. "We don't even know yet how big of a problem we are going to have."

Some of the dangerous bacteria - including Vibrio vulnificus, which killed three people along the Gulf Coast and sickened many more with gastrointestinal ailments - are expected to be killed by sunlight as the water is pumped out of the city and the muck dries, flood experts said.

But that's outdoors. Inside, many homes will likely have their rugs, walls and floors ripped out before reconstruction, with what's remaining being scrubbed with disinfectants.

Teams of contractors and government environmental officials will search for "hot spots" of contaminated soil around gas stations, industrial buildings and home heating tanks that leaked during the storm, Martinson said. Some of this soil might be hauled away for incineration.

"You've got such a large metropolitan area that's been flooded, especially around New Orleans. There will have to be some extensive soil remediation and treatment," said Joe Miller, a director at Weston Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based environmental engineering firm under contract with the EPA to help clean up after the flood.

Philip Bedient, a flood expert and professor of engineering at Rice University in Houston, said the cost would be staggering if the federal government tried to remove all of the contaminated dirt in the Gulf Coast flood zone.

But he said such an approach might be necessary in limited areas, such as around damaged and leaky gas stations.

"This is going to be the most significant flood cleanup that I've ever heard of," said Bedient. While government officials said yesterday that it was too early to put a price tag on the cleanup, Bedient said the cost could exceed $100 billion.

Authorities said yesterday that oil slicks are polluting several areas, but no industrial chemicals have been detected so far in residential neighborhoods of New Orleans. Mold and mildew are expected to proliferate in wet areas. But Bedient said a much more pressing problem than mold, mud or chemicals is the large number of decaying corpses in the balmy flood waters.

"With this large number of bodies sitting for a long time in warm waters, perhaps one or two months - that's a breeding ground for bacteria and diseases," he said.

Edward Bouwer, a professor of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, said it would be a waste of money to treat New Orleans as a Superfund site, hauling away all of the contaminated mud.

"If you try to mop it up, the money would not be well spent," said Bouwer. "These pathogens don't do well outside of our bodies. As long as the mud dries in the sun for several weeks, the bacteria will die. ... Leaving it in place is the best solution for the moment."

More vital is to get the city's drinking water system functioning again, Bouwer said. Many of the pipes likely became tainted with pollutants and will need to be flushed with chlorinated water for several hours in each home before people can drink the tap water, he said.

In Maryland, the cleanup after Tropical Storm Isabel two years ago included the removal of 600 tons of contaminated soil.

Rising waters from the Chesapeake Bay ruptured underground fuel oil tanks behind 170 homes in eastern Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and elsewhere. Oil seeped into the dirt, with the vapors posing a health threat and causing headaches, nausea and irritation to nasal passages.

State officials worried that the oil would contaminate drinking water supplies and decompose into potentially cancer-causing compounds such as benzene, said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"The concern was that as people drilled new wells, they would be drinking this stuff, which wouldn't be good," McIntire said. "So we tried to recover as much of this contaminated soil as possible."

A dozen contractors were paid $2.25 million by the federal and state governments to use backhoes to dig up tons of oily dirt and replace it with clean soil. Some of the tainted earth was burned, some of it buried in landfills.

"In many cases, the oil and other contaminants get into wood and cinder block and there is no way to wholly remediate them," said Steve Kanstoroom, whose Talbot County home was damaged by Isabel.

Bernice Myer, a homicide detective whose house in Baltimore County was destroyed, said: "If they experience in New Orleans what we experienced in Isabel, their nightmares are just beginning."

During the 1993 floods of the Mississippi River in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and other Midwestern states, factories that manufacture agricultural chemicals were inundated, said Stephen Blanchard, chief of the office of surface water at the U.S. Geological Survey.

But soil tests around these plants showed no contamination because the volume of water was so great, any leaks of pollutants were diluted, he said.

Cleanup for the town of Valmeyer, Ill., after that flood was difficult, Blanchard said. The town picked itself up and moved more than a mile from its former location, near the Mississippi River, to the top of a hill, so it could not be buried in the Mississippi mud ever again.

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