September 10, 2008
Hurricane Gustav has blown through, wreaking under-reported damage on many of our friends in southern Louisiana. When the levees held in New Orleans, the gathered national press quickly disappeared. Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and many small towns in between, roofs were blown off, roads flooded by mud. In many neighborhoods electricity is still off and clean water is still in spare supply. If the impact of Gustav was not the disaster many predicted, its lasting impact is being felt by tens of thousands.
Since our focus has been on the health of the waters that surround and crisscross all of southern Louisiana, the hurricane (as well as the one apparently on its way later this week, named Ike) brings added concerns. In the past ten days we've all seen pictures of storm-roiled waters splashing over and threatening to break through levees. Based on our experience, remind yourself when you see that big hurricane-roiled stew sloshing around that those waters are heavily laden with spilled fuel oil, pesticides, fertilizers and chemical run off.
Our biggest insight to just how insidiously pollutants have infiltrated these waters was the morning we spent with Jeff Dauzat, who for 21 years has looked over the health of the water for Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality. It's got to be a tough job; we meet him on the shores of the Mississippi River in the heart of downtown New Orleans, where workers in hazmat suits, helmets and face masks are power-scrubbing the most recent oil spill from rocks lining the Mississippi River.
At 1:30 a.m. on July 23 a barge loaded with fuel oil was crossing the river, perpendicular to traffic moving up and down river. Despite repeated radio calls, the barge failed to move in time to avoid being t-boned by a tanker loaded with chemicals headed downriver, slicing it in two. Nearly 400,000 gallons of fuel oil hemorrhaged into the river; thanks to the river's strong currents within 24 hours the spill had spread down both sides of the river for nearly 200 miles.
VIDEO LINK: LIVE: "the barge is right in front of us, and we're runnin' it over..."
Five weeks later, as Dauzat and I talk along the river, cleaners in white smocks and helmets power-spray rocks still covered with thick oil. They use heated water and the waste washes back into the river where a slinky, orange boom attempts to collect it. "This was bad," he says, "and so far it's cost the barge company $100 million for the clean up. But this is ten percent of the total spills we saw during Katrina, all of which washed into the river and swamps."
He guesses the clean up will continue at least another few weeks. The most difficult part is that here there are rocks covered with oil while just down river it's tall grass. Each environment along the river's banks demand a very different kind of cleansing. I ask about the long-term effect to the river, especially to the city's drinking water.
"New Orleans gets its drinking water from the Mississippi, through five or six big intakes right here," he explains, "Thankfully this grade oil floats, so it didn't sink down to the level where the drinking water is taken in. But just in case, we shut them down for five days while we tested the water."
In any other city in the country, a 400,000-gallon spill in the heart of town would be a long-lasting natural disaster. Here it seems to be almost treated as business as usual. "Again, compared to the after effect of Katrina, this was nothing," says Dauzat, "and with each spill we learn something new." I wonder how he stays optimistic in an environment where oil and chemical spills, dead zones and hurricane backwash are considered "business as usual."
"It's the small successes that make a difference," he says, echoing a theme we are hearing repeatedly, "which do happen from time to time."