Floodwater Deals
Blow To
Lake Pontchartrain

By Ralph Vartabedian and Marla Cone, Tribune Newspapers
Ralph Vartabedian reported from New Orleans
and Marla Cone from Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times; Tribune news services contributed

NEW ORLEANS -- The high-stakes effort to bail out New Orleans is sending plumes of contaminated, brown, stinking water into Lake Pontchartrain, setting back years of effort to restore the environmentally sensitive home to Gulf Coast marine life.
After festering for two weeks in residential neighborhoods, commercial districts and industrial zones, the water is laden with bacteria, silt, petroleum products and possibly toxic substances.
City officials have confirmed that they also are releasing untreated sewage into the Mississippi River from one of two treatment plants operated by the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina has forced the abandonment of normal environmental and sanitation practices as workers scramble to preserve what's left of the city and to prevent a breakdown of public health.
The floodwaters have high levels of fecal material, silt and other substances that could damage the marine environment.
`Tremendous dead zone'
Martha Sutula, a senior scientist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project who has studied the ecology of Louisiana wetlands, said nutrients in the floodwaters, such as nitrates and ammonia, will likely cause algae and phytoplankton blooms in the shallow lake and surrounding estuaries. The blooms can deplete oxygen and suffocate marine life.
"I would imagine that you're going to have a pretty tremendous dead zone," Sutula said. "This is going to set them back quite a few years."
Al Naomi, a senior project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers agreed.
"It will take years to clean up our estuaries. The lake was coming back with manatees and fish," Naomi said. "Twenty years of effort has been wiped out in an afternoon storm surge."
While few experts criticize the extreme measures being taken to save New Orleans, the practices most likely violate federal laws in normal times.
"We have multiple disasters in Hurricane Katrina," said William Freudenburg, an environmental professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Much of the disaster was caused by the initial decision of where to put the city's levees. It was turned into a human disaster by the worst response I have ever seen by the government. Now we have a disaster on one of the most environmentally sensitive and valuable wetlands in America."
So far, the storm is not thought to have caused toxic pollution.
The flood inundated at least one Superfund site, the Agriculture Street landfill. The cleanup was completed before the flood, though some toxic residues remained in the soil. Tens of thousands of inundated homes are thought to have solvents, pesticides and other toxic substances stored in garages and under sinks that could be leaking.
Toxins not registering
Floodwaters in six locations have been tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than 100 chemicals; only one chemical has exceeded EPA standards. Lead in floodwaters near an exit ramp off Interstate Highway 10 was 15 times greater than the level allowed in drinking water.
Most of the hazardous chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls found in electrical equipment, and benzene found in crude oil and gasoline, were undetectable, according to the EPA's first round of tests conducted Sept. 3.
Later testing, on Sept. 4 and Sept. 6, showed continued high levels of lead, as well as arsenic and hexavalent chromium, the EPA said Wednesday. Thallium was detected at slightly elevated levels at one sampling location, the agency said.
The second tests indicated higher levels of E. coli and other coliform bacteria too, the EPA said.
Lake Pontchartrain, a shallow body of brackish water that is affected by ocean tides, is normally blue. But the view from a helicopter this week showed at least three large plumes of brown water leaving the 17th Street Canal, the London Avenue Canal and the Inter Harbor Navigation Channel. Those waterways are the main outflows for about 6.5 billion gallons of floodwaters per day from the city's pumping stations. Even several hundred feet above the city, the air stinks of sewage.
Marcia St. Martin, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board, said there was no evidence that the water being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain is a "toxic brew."
Though the water may contain bacteria, she said, the city never treated storm water routinely pumped in great quantities into Lake Pontchartrain.
"Fecal coliform in floodwater is normal," she said.



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