N.O.’s air, soil and water need continued EPA oversight

by Susan Buchanan, originally posted on November 21, 2016


New Orleans, with its sinking land, industrial pollution, flooding and post-hurricane cleanups, needs a strong Environmental Protection Agency, scientists and others said last week. Donald Trump has signaled that he wants to defang EPA so that industry can operate with fewer restraints. Myron Ebell, a climate-warming skeptic, has been tapped to oversee the agency’s transition in January. But if anything, the Crescent City needs more enforcement from Washington, not less.

Jessica Quinn, environmental science teacher at New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School, worries about the impacts of a too-lenient EPA. “Everything from respiratory illness to neurological disorders can be caused by pollutants,” she said last week. “Environmental contaminants create many of our health problems, especially among children.” Lead levels in soils in the Ninth Ward and other parts of the city are above federal limits, she said. That threatens kids at play.

In water around the city, “the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain host toxins, remaining from BP’s 2010 spill, that can contaminate the food we catch,” Quinn said. As an overseer, the EPA functions with too few resources now. “It’s vital that the agency’s current regulations be enforced,” she said. “If rules are relaxed under the Trump administration, or EPA’s funding is cut, health will be put at risk.”

Chemist Wilma Subra, head of an environmental consultancy in New Iberia, agrees. The EPA delegates authority for its programs to Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality. “Both the EPA and the state’s DEQ must enforce regulations dealing with air quality, solid waste, water and waste water,” she said. “In New Orleans, heavy industrial development in and around the city is an ongoing threat to air and to health.”

Fill material, used in the city to cope with land sinking and other situations, often contains toxins. “People live, work, attend school and worship on top of contaminants in this fill,” Subra said. “Fill can be river sand, and historically incinerator ash has been used, but over the years waste streams have been employed too. Building on toxic material threatens the community’s health. It desperately needs to be addressed.”

Subra served as vice chairman of the EPA’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology for seven years.

In 1994, the EPA named the Agriculture Street Landfill in the city’s Ninth Ward as a Superfund site, saying it posed health hazards and needed remediation. The site had higher-than-allowed levels of lead, arsenic and poly-chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons. The landfill, begun as a dump in 1909, was shut in the late 1950s and then reopened in 1965 to handle debris from Hurricane Betsy. It was closed for good in 1966 and covered with ash.

In the late 1970s, the area was covered with sand and soil for residential development by the city under Mayor Dutch Morial. In the early 1980s, two subdivisions, Gordon Plaza and Press Park, were built on the old landfill. The new residents were African Americans for the most part. The Moton Elementary School was built there in 1986 and is now shuttered. Since Katrina, Press Park has been abandoned and partly demolished. People still live in homes in Gordon Plaza, however.

In the late 1990s, contaminated soil and materials were removed from the Superfund site. Sand for backfill, along with topsoil and sod, were deposited there. A $20 million government cleanup was completed in 2001. Five years later, however, Civil District Judge Nadine Ramsey declared that the neighborhood was uninhabitable.

As for the EPA’s involvement, “the agency has worked closely with the Agriculture Street community to ensure a safe environment since the site was added to the National Priorities List in 1994,” Jennah Durant, EPA spokeswoman in Dallas, said last week. A third, five-year review of the site, completed in September 2013, found that its remediation complied with the EPA’s intentions. “In May of this year, EPA met with community members and discussed approaches that can be used in the next five-year review, which is due in April 2018,” Durant said.

Meanwhile, lead in the city’s soils, though not as worrisome now as it was pre-Katrina, is a threat that needs government monitoring. Most of the city’s parks and playgrounds have been remediated for lead since Katrina. But in the urban interior, unsafe levels persist in backyards and some recreation areas, according to Howard Mielke, pharmacology professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. Even at low levels, lead in blood can affect IQs, academic achievement and behavior, he said.

In neighborhoods in the center of the city identified as high in lead, the share of children with blood lead levels of five micrograms per deciliter or higher fell to 19 percent last year, from 64 percent before Katrina, Mielke said.

How did the city’s soils become relatively healthier? Katrina’s levee failures left much of the metropolis flooded in 2005 and deposited coastal sediment, which was low in lead, on the ground. And as buildings were cleaned or gutted, materials covered with lead-based paint were repainted or removed. Cleaner soil was brought in from elsewhere for construction sites.

Before that, Mielke credits the Clean Air Act and the EPA, both of which date to 1970, for phasing lead out of gasoline by 1995 and slowing soil contamination. He hopes that the EPA under Trump will ensure that leaded gasoline, which is used in some grades of aviation fuel, doesn’t enter the road transportation market.

In a current dispute, A Community Voice, based in New Orleans, joined other nonprofits in a lawsuit filed by EarthJustice in August, claiming that the EPA has failed to update lead paint and dust standards. The suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, argues that since 2009–when EPA granted a petition to update lead standards—the agency hasn’t proposed new ones, putting public health at risk.

“The EPA, the petitioners and a mediator will meet to determine whether the issues involved can be resolved through mediation,” Durant at EPA said last week.

This fall, residents have continued to report odors from nearby refineries and plants to the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans. People in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes have said they felt unwell. Discharges of oil and hazardous chemicals into the vicinity’s waterways by tankers and other vessels have been reported to the brigade this fall too.

Last week, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s founder and director Anne Rolfe said, “the incoming Trump administration has turned to Myron Ebell, one of biggest climate deniers on the planet, to head up the transition team at EPA.” She remembers when newly-elected president George W. Bush in 2001 rolled back access to environmental data about the oil industry. And she fears that an EPA air rule, adopted late last year, that requires oil refineries to monitor levels of cancer-causing benzene, could be on the chopping block under President Trump.

Myron Ebell directs the Center for Energy and the Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, DC.

Rolfe said the Bucket Brigade and other Louisiana environmental groups will work with the state’s Congressional delegation to make sure that Gulf Coast concerns about pollution and other matters aren’t written off by the new EPA administration.

Oil wells off the Plaquemines Parish coast, where the BP spill occurred, are near New Orleans. Victims of well explosions are brought to the city’s hospitals, and odors from offshore spills are sometimes detected here. Statewide, 1,657 petrochemical accidents on Gulf platforms, onshore facilities, pipelines, vessels and storage tanks—spilling oil and other products—were reported from January to Nov. 3, versus 2,307 in all of 2015, according to data from the Bucket Brigade’s iwitnesspollution.org and the federal National Response Center.

The EPA, along with DEQ, monitors ground-level ozone, created by industrial and auto emissions. Production of ozone, harmful to human lungs, rises during the city’s heat waves. In October 2015, EPA finalized a new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion. “EPA hasn’t made designations based on this standard yet, but preliminary data indicate that the New Orleans area is meeting the 70 ppb standard,” Durant said.

Mielke hopes current environmental regulations will be enforced and enhanced. He said good stewardship includes air, water and soil. In addition to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the nation needs a soil act. “We have two legs of the three-legged stool now,” he said.

Subra said if the EPA’s authority is reduced under President Trump, the state’s environmental monitoring will be weakened, with consequences for public health. She’s watched the EPA and Louisiana’s DEQ for awhile. In 1999, she received a Genius Award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago for helping Americans understand the environment.

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