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Thursday, September 15, 2005


If you’re in Chicago, New Orleans is safe! But wait, if you’re in Los Angeles, New Orleans could be a very dangerous place to return to. Washington, DCers think everything is fine, but New Yorkers can’t be so sure. What gives? Depending on what morning paper you get, the story about New Orleans’ environmental integrity is completely varied.

Just take a look at the headlines:

“Finally, good news for Big Easy: EPA OKs city air; Bush aides pin hopes on speech”
-Chicago Tribune (subscription required)

“Toxic Threat Still Vague but Ominous, EPA Says: Health risks are many but the measurements are inconclusive, agency chief says. Some contend the tests are inadequate.”
- Los Angeles Times

“Floods' Pollutants Within the Norm: Oil Spills Seen as the Only Exception”
- Washington Post (subscription required)

“E.P.A. Struggles to Determine Extent of Hazards in Sludge”
- The New York Times (subscription required)

What’s this all mean? It means EPA testing of the flood waters in the region shows no danger for a lot of chemicals and heavy metals, but only does so because the testing is seriously flawed. One simple way of proving the testing is seriously lacking credibility is that all test samples showed zero presence of benzene, a key ingredient in oil and gasoline. Anyone with a set of eyeballs can see the oil sheen on top of the water, and anyone who knows something about the area knows much of the economy is based on the petroleum industry. No one argues that oil spills were heavy.

So why didn’t benzene show up in the testing? Again, depends what paper you are reading. According to the New York Times, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said “early tests did not look for hazardous petrochemical byproducts like benzene because the presence of oil and gasoline was obvious.”

Oh. OK. But if you look at the test results here it says benzene was “sampled but not found.”

So, let’s check that, then. The Los Angeles Times reports the EPA didn’t find benzene because, Johnson said, “petroleum residue has been absorbed into the dirt. [Johnson] said the soil and other sediment contain so much petroleum-based material that it is hard to isolate specific compounds in the tests.”

How is it possible that Stephen Johnson said they did and they didn’t test for benzene at the same time? Because that’s the name of the game for the EPA these days. Confuse, confound, cover-up. The more they can spin the real story into a confusing mess for reporters, the more likely it will be that reporters will throw up their hands and simply report the agency’s party line. Unfortunately, the agency long ago gave up on its mission to protect the public health, and took up a new mission to make the administration it serves look good and protect the corporate interests that are “friendly” to it. Sadly, there are few reporters left willing to do what it takes to really challenge the EPAs steady stream of bull.

The EPA will come up with 20 excuses a day as to why they cannot find benzene and other contaminants that everyone knows is in the water and the sludge that will be left to dry out. But the bottom line will be the same – those harmful chemicals “weren’t found.” In this way, the President can oversee a quick return to an appearance of normalcy, and the petroleum and chemical companies that would normally be held financially liable for the clean up will get off scott-free. Meanwhile, the poor people of New Orleans will be sent back to live on what may qualify as a Superfund site.

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  • We are the New Orleans Environmental Blog Team
  • We are a group of former Congressional staff, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff, and environmental group staff tracking and analyzing the news, in real time, from New Orleans from an environmental health perspective.

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