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From December 06, 2005                                                                                                           

Groups Urge Soil Cleanup in New Orleans
(Beyond Pesticides, December 6, 2005) New Orleans officials have been urged by environmental groups to clean up soil contamination.According to a story reported by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the city's parks and yards will be contaminated with dangerous chemicals and heavy metals for years unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) orders a widespread cleanup of areas flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

An assessment that was presented by the NRDC and several Louisiana groups, was in stark contrast to statements by state and federal agencies stating that contamination does not appear to be widespread. According to the story, the EPA hasn't found soil contamination in New Orleans to be something warranting a major cleanup, and state regulators say they haven't found a need to remove large amounts of sediment.

Tom Harris, a toxicologist with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said soil samples studied by the state don't justify wide-scale soil removal. Harris continued, "The vast majority of the city, we see nothing that is a problem for long-term exposure."

The clash over the potential dangers found in the soil is the latest disagreement between environmentalists and regulators over the effects of the extensive flooding and damage from Hurricane Katrina. According to the environmentalists, regulators have downplayed the risks caused by environmental waivers (see background to Action Alert) for factories, debris disposal and oil spills. Environmentalists are saying that independent soil tests show high levels of arsenic and other contaminants throughout New Orleans.

Dr. Gail Solomon, senior scientist with NRDC advised, "Until these problems are cleaned up, it's not a good idea to have people moving for the long-term into these communities." Harris disputed the arsenic claim, saying the naturally occurring metal is often found in similar concentrations. However, DEQ’s Harris said, "It's a little irresponsible to tell people they can't go back in their houses because of the level of arsenic, because wherever they go they will find arsenic in the soil." He also disputed test results presented by environmental chemist Wilma Subra, who said she found that banned pesticides from a closed-down pesticide plant and contaminants from an old landfill that flooded were leaching into surrounding areas.

New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights hopes to persuade the EPA to order a large-scale cleanup in the city, said attorney Monique Harden. The people of Louisiana need strong health and safety protections now more than ever and deserve the same as the rest of the country. In the meantime, she said, the public should be informed of the risks and how to protect themselves.