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Sep 13, 2005

Shimmering to Death




In report after Katrina report, stagnant flood waters have been described as "toxic stew" and "bacterial soup." 

Right now, the harm to the environment is plain to see (and smell, and feel).  Ultimately, however, its unclear how seriously the media, the public and (partially as a consequence) the state, local and federal government will rigorously tackle the long term ecological and environmental fallout of this disaster.

When it comes to documenting environmental injury, it seems that photojournalists and the media can be too easily lured by beauty and composition at the expense of a more pragmatic visual (as well as investigative) accounting of ecological demise.  In my mind, these images serve as a metaphor for our desensitization toward the environment as a health, quality-of-life and, especially, a political issue.

The Bush Administration has been getting away with slow murder on the environment. The EPA has covered up or glossed over widespread mercury and lead contamination, as well the toxicity of our seafood. The complex arrangement devised by the Clinton administration to reduce and enforce coal emission procedures has been scuttled. There have also been quiet scandals over outright collusion between industry and the environmental agency.

Of course, the environmental blow to the Gulf Coast has been profound. I found passages in at least two articles in yesterday's NYT to be really terrifying. 

In a piece on the recovery challenge (In Reviving New Orleans, A Challenge of Many Tiers - link), Robert D. Bullard, a  director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University stated:

"The fact is that the whole city is now a potential toxic dump or brownfield."

In outlining the problem, the article briefly outlined the scope of damage, the problem of bureaucratic response, the impact on the poor, and and even a parallel with the World Trade Center disaster:

Because residues from the floodwaters are likely to contain the high levels of lead, oil and other toxic substances measured in the water itself, debates will rage about whether this schoolyard or that park is safe, much as they did after dust and debris from the World Trade Center coated Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has promised to convene a task force of experts to study the problems in New Orleans. But it will be weeks, probably months, before many areas are dry enough to assess.

The agency has already found the pathogen E. coli at levels as much as 20 times what is considered healthy, as well as elevated levels of lead and suspected carcinogens like PCB's, said Eryn Witcher, a spokeswoman for the agency. Ms. Witcher said it was impossible at this preliminary stage to estimate how much a cleanup would cost or how long it would take.

City officials are assuming that thousands of houses will have to be bulldozed. "You can't save a place that's been soaking for weeks," said Robert Kates, an emeritus professor of geography at Brown University and an expert on disaster recovery.

In facing the mess left by Hurricane Katrina, officials responsible for the environment in New Orleans will contend with a history of unresolved battles over persistent contamination in poor or black neighborhoods.

And, if you missed this item, the last part of yesterday's NYT lead (President Visits as New Orleans Sees Some Gains- link) reported that the spraying of pesticide to treat contaminated water was to commence over the city last night. According to the article:

An Air National Guard unit will begin spraying a pesticide over New Orleans on Monday evening, in an attempt to prevent an outbreak of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

While the chemical agent that will be used, naled, is believed to be harmless to humans, officials acknowledged that it was unusual to spray a pesticide directly over an urban center. Several thousand residents are believed to remain in New Orleans.

Sgt. Shawn David McCowan, a spokesman for the 910th Airlift Wing, a unit based in Vienna, Ohio, that will be spraying the pesticide, said people in New Orleans who come into contact with the spray would only notice a harmless blue dye on their clothing or bodies. The dye is sprayed with the pesticide to allow the pilots to see what areas they have covered. The pesticide is commonly used in southern Louisiana.

The fact is, New Orleans is now poisonous. Going forward, the key questions are: How openly will this fact be acknowledged? How honestly will the problem be quantified? To what extent will the environment be restored? To what extent will residents, especially the poor, pay a physical price (more than before) for a general acquiescence toward environmental breakdown?

And, how much will the public and the media take a shine to the story as it becomes less visually manifest?

(Caption for the top image from NYT photo series by Vincent Laforet: "Bleeding gasoline surrounds a boat with shimmering rainbow eddies in Chalmette, La.")

(image 1: Vincent Laforet/The New York Times. 9/10/05.  image 2: Robert Sullivan. Oil and gas leak from a submerged car beneath an overpass in New Orleans(AFP/Robert Sullivan. Approximately September 4, 2005. YahooNews. image 3: Dave Einsel/AFP/Getty Images. A toxic film spreads over the water near a flooded home in New Orleans, Louisiana. Approximately September 4, 2005. YahooNews.)


"The air is safe to breathe at Ground Zero." -Bush Administraion senior official, Sept. 14, 2001

The water IS bad, but on the upside, much of the gasoline and oil will be degrded by some of the same bacteria.

so will your feet.

It's the smog caused by all that stuff in the short term that has me nervous, that and the mold.

"acknowledged that it was unusual to spray a pesticide directly over an urban center."

I guess Boston isn't a real city after all.

I'm sure the photographers were drawn to the "beauty" of the shimmering pollutants on the surface of the floodwater, but anybody who knows anything about such shimmers will know that those colors spell trouble for the environment. And, I wouldn't want anybody to go into that mess to get a closer picture of the toxic muck that is likely resting under all of that, so flying over it is probably the safest way to get clear pictures of the ginormous environmental mess this is.

Of course, these images are literally just "scratching the surface" of what nastiness is under all that water, but as it is all drained away you'll probably see pictures of people in hazmat suits and gas masks, perhaps lots of sludgy stuff covering homes.

While the chemical agent that will be used, naled, is believed to be harmless to humans

Oh, right. Same old same old. 15 years later? "We had no idea!"

It actually takes very little oil (or petroleum-whatever) to spread out in a very thin layer across the water.

So, "toxic," I don't know. I mean, the air, water, and earth are slightly toxic in most heavily populated areas (especially near the petrochemical refineries around there). I'd guess the "toxicity" will be just slightly higher than before, unless there was a huge leak I haven't heard about.

They'll test the ground, remove some topsoil in small areas, and life will go on as before.

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