Prompts fear of chemical storage disastersAs the National Guard arrives on the scene and relief efforts step up, it is of paramount importance that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Gulf Coast state agencies inform first responders, relief workers and the public of any toxic chemical threats in the areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Those agencies should immediately release the list of chemicals stored in the dozens of oil refineries and chemical plants in the area, with information on possible health and safety threats and how they can be avoided.
The contamination from the mix of sewage, pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic chemicals in the waters in New Orleans and other communities ravaged by the hurricane needs to be a top priority. However, the Gulf Coast, including the area around New Orleans, is home to one of the largest concentrations of chemical plants and oil refineries in the U.S. There are 140 petrochemical facilities along the Mississippi River just in the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. These facilities store hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic chemicals that could endanger the health and safety of first responders, rescue workers, and the public.
There could be severe health threats if any chemical or toxic waste storage facilities were breached by flood or debris damage. A tank breach could release chemicals that form toxic clouds and leaked chemicals could contaminate flood waters. Some of the acute effects—skin irritation, burning eyes, dizziness, and fluid buildup in the lungs—could not only cause significant health impacts, but also interfere with rescue and cleanup operations. Many of the chemicals could also have long term health impacts on those exposed.
As far as we know, none of the chemical plants or oil refineries has sustained damage that would cause a chemical release, though we have heard reports of a major oil spill and a flooded ExxonMobil refinery. To make sure that emergency responders and the public can protect themselves in the days to come, U.S. EPA and Gulf Coast state agencies should release to the public:
- a list of chemicals stored at facilities in the area, as well as approximate volumes of storage;
- possible means by which the chemical could be released (through flood water or as a gas-release caused by breach of a storage vessel)
- possible health effects of exposure; and
- protective steps available to the public and emergency responders.
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By Jeremiah Baumann, Environment & Public Health Expert recorded for PIRG (Public Interest Research Groups)