2005 CPEO Brownfields List Archive

From: lsiegel@cpeo.org
Date: 12 Oct 2005 16:18:13 -0000
Reply: cpeo-brownfields
Subject: [CPEO-BIF] Hurricane response - Message to EPA Staff from Tom Dunne
Message to EPA Staff from Tom Dunne 
EPA Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response
October 12, 2005


>From the moment the wind and waves subsided, there was no question that
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most damaging natural disasters in U.S.
history. Entire communities along the Gulf Coast had disappeared, and
thousands of homes were damaged beyond repair. New Orleans was
particularly hard hit, as the levees that protect it were breached,
flooding large parts of the city to a depth that in some places
approached 25 feet. Almost 1,000 people lost their lives. 

Some EPA employees who worked along the Gulf Coast were among those who
suffered through the disaster, losing their homes and other belongings
to the hurricane. But for most of us at EPA, Hurricane Katrina had
little direct effect on our personal or professional lives. Most of us
experienced the hurricane like the rest of the country did -- watching
it crash ashore on television. Most of us responded to it like the rest
of the country did - donating time or money to the relief organizations
that rushed in to help. Most of us were simply part of the vast audience
of Americans who watched the disaster unfold with deep sympathy and
concern for its victims, but with our lives otherwise untouched. 

But some of our headquarters and regional employees and contractors have
had a far more personal, immediate involvement with Hurricane Katrina
and its aftermath. For the past month, hundreds of the Agency's
emergency response personnel have been working virtually nonstop in Gulf
coastal areas as an integral part of the federal response team. Many
others have provided our on-scene responders with 24 hours-a-day support
from the Emergency Operations Center located at EPA headquarters in
Washington, D.C. Their combined efforts to assist the people whose lives
and property were devastated by Hurricane Katrina have been tireless,
self-sacrificing, and a testament to the professional dedication of
public servants, a dedication that is too often overlooked or
undervalued by commentators watching the cleanup efforts from afar. 

Much of EPA's role in response to the ongoing disaster along the Gulf
coast is defined by the National Response Plan. We're doing what we've
trained to do, what we're expected to do. 

As soon as the storm subsided, we teamed with the U.S. Coast Guard to
respond to reported spills and releases of oil and chemicals. To date,
we've conducted more than 150 responses to reported spills. 

While areas were still flooded, we took hundreds of samples from
floodwaters to determine the kinds and extent of possible contamination,
both biological and chemical. As the floodwaters receded, we took
hundreds of samples from the sludge and sediment left behind. In late
September, EPA's ocean water testing vessel, the Bold, began taking
samples of water quality, benthos, and fish tissues in the Gulf of
Mexico in the plume of the Mississippi River. 

As soon as the weather permitted, EPA's ASPECT airplane began collecting
air quality data to assess possible health risks to clean-up workers and
returning inhabitants. During September, ASPECT conducted 20
data-collection flights. As streets became passable, our two TAGA (Trace
Atmospheric Gas Analyzer) buses began collecting air quality data in
multiple locations throughout New Orleans, and the initial results of
these samplings have been released to the public. 

EPA also has been working with state environmental officials to
determine the operational status and environmental conditions at
drinking water facilities and wastewater treatment plants in affected
areas. This is a huge job that is critically important for the safe
return of local populations. There are about 4,000 drinking water
facilities, serving about 13 million people, and about 800 wastewater
treatment plants in affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama,
and Texas. 

EPA's emergency response team also has conducted initial assessments of
the status of Superfund sites in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.
EPA teams are currently conducting more detailed, on-site inspections at
these sites. 

The Corps of Engineers has primary federal responsibility for managing
debris in an emergency, and state agencies have considerable experience
disposing of debris from hurricanes. EPA is assisting them with the
disposal of the enormous amounts of hazardous waste and other debris
left behind by Hurricane Katrina. We helped establish several sites for
debris collection. During September, the EPA team collected over 50,000
unsecured or abandoned containers of potentially hazardous wastes, and
that number is increasing with each passing day. 

  This short summary of EPA's efforts to date as part of the federal
emergency response team does not do justice to the difficulty of the
job. In any disaster of that magnitude, in any scene of considerable
chaos, situations arise that are not part of the plan, situations that
have not been prepared for. Such was the case after Hurricane Katrina. 

EPA's first responders were not prepared to be shot at by snipers, as
happened in New Orleans. When we put our first boats into the water in
New Orleans in order to investigate reported releases of oil and
chemicals, we did not expect them to be requisitioned to help in search
and rescue efforts. But that's what happened, and EPA responders and
contractors rescued about 800 people. When our emergency response
personnel reported for work along the Gulf Coast, they did not expect to
be on the job for over two weeks straight of 18-hour days without
relief. But that's what happened to most of them. Many members of our
emergency response team are still sleeping on the floor or on cots, up
to 50 in a room. Ironically, our personnel enjoyed their first
opportunity for a good night's sleep when they were forced to shut down
operations and evacuate the coast because of the approach of Hurricane
Rita, after which they returned to an even bigger task. 

Besides the personal discomfort and exhaustion, our response team was
exposed to potential health risks from contaminated air, water, and
sediments. Before being allowed into the affected areas, every member of
our team had to be immunized to protect against hepatitis and other
communicable diseases. 

The federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been roundly criticized.
Given the lessons we learned in Louisiana and Mississippi during the
past month, I expect our response the next time around will be much

But after seeing the staggering devastation with my own eyes, and after
meeting with many of EPA's response team, and with state and local
officials in the area, I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to the men
and women who gave -- and are still giving -- so much of themselves in
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They did the job they were expected
to do exceedingly well. And they responded to the unexpected with
courage, skill, and good judgment. As we go through the inevitable
evaluation of what went right and what could be improved with our
response, the personal dedication and professional accomplishments of
EPA's team should not be forgotten. 


Lenny Siegel
Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight
c/o PSC, 278-A Hope St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545
Fax: 650/961-8918
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