Toxic Spills Durring Hurricanes

In addition to all of the immediate damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, several refineries and other types of factories along the United States’ southern coast had accidents such as chemical and oil spills. A review of data from the National Response Center published by the Houston Chronicle shows that the two hurricanes combined accounted for at least 595 different spills, resulting in the release of vast amounts of natural gas, oil, and several other chemicals in the air, water and soil.

According to the report in the Houston Chronicle, "The quantity and cumulative magnitude of the 595 spills, which were spread across four states and struck offshore and inland, rank these two hurricanes among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Some have even compared the total amount of oil released — estimated at 9 million gallons — to the tragedy of Exxon Valdez."

As the storms traveled, they tore through 54 different hazardous waste sites, and in some areas kicked up and released pollutants and toxic materials that were stored in those facilities.

Although efforts are being made to clean up and decontaminate the community, many residents are considered that the clean up process alone simply won’t be enough to restore safety to their homes.

"This is about the tenth disaster I have responded to, and this is the worst I have ever seen," remarked Wally Cooper, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator. He informed the Chronicle of just one of the spills, one which released an estimated 1 million gallons of oil across one square mile area close to Chalmette, LA, some 10 miles southeast of New Orleans, LA. "This is worse than the worst-case scenario", he added.

The oil industry representatives maintain that there was no feasible way that they could have predicted the accidents or have made preparations for the subsequent mess. "We don't like to spill oil. Oil that spills is of no value," said Larry Wall, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association’s spokesman. "You can build your structures to withstand strong winds, rain and storm surges, but nature can always topple you," he added.

Even though Houston escaped the worst of Hurricane Rita, there were still environmental consequences. As chemical plants shut down and then came back online, a significant amount of air pollution was released. One boat reportedly sank off the Kemah boardwalk. In a few of the cases, the natural disaster actually offset the environmental disaster. For instance, oil can’t impact towns that have already been destroyed by floodwaters and high winds. The sunlight evaporated many spills, while the water diluted them. In addition, due to the evacuations, many people avoided breathing in the toxic fumes. However, as people are once again returning to hurricane-torn areas several months later, there are still serious environmental concerns, and more are constantly being discovered. As the senior environmentalist scientist of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Dwight Bradshaw put it, "We are still getting information about incidents that happened after the storm."People are coming back and saying, 'Oh, I'm missing a tank.' "

Air-monitoring data recently released by the EPA indicated that some harmful chemicals are still lingering l in the air in Mississippi, yet officials have yet to determine their source. Surveys conducted with a small portion of the 54 hazardous waste sites that were in the path of the storms reveal that in some instances old pollution that had long been buried was re-released by the hurricanes.

Also, samples of sediment taken from different residences in the area of the Murphy Oil spill indicate levels of organic chemicals high enough to potentially create respiratory problems for those people exposed to it. The National Response Center’s data compiled in the week immediately following the hurricanes includes both small as well as large spills.