Hearings - Testimony
 
Full Committee Hearing
Hurricane Katrina Response
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
 
Kim Dunn Chapital
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

Thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to testify before this Committee. My name is Kim Dunn Chapital, MSPH. I am here today as a representative of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) at Dillard University in New Orleans, formerly at Xavier University of Louisiana. I have worked with DSCEJ for the past 6 years as environmental trainer for unemployed and underemployed minorities living in low-income communities of color. I train minorities on how to safely and properly conduct hazardous materials remediation and emergency response activities, asbestos and lead abatement, and mold remediation so that they can build healthier communities free of toxic pollution.

 

In addition, for the past 21 years I have worked at the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at Tulane University. I initially held the position of hazardous waste technician and worked in that capacity for 1.5 years. I was then promoted to the position of an industrial hygienist. In 1981, I was promoted again to the position of occupational health manager -- the position I currently hold. I sit as a member of the American Indoor Air Quality Council, and have expertise in the areas of hazardous materials removal and emergency response, and occupational health and safety. I’m currently accredited by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to conduct lead and asbestos abatement.

I am here today not only as one voice among the thousands of displaced, primarily low-income people of color, from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but also as an expert on environmental and occupational health issues. I am a lifelong resident of the New Orleans area and my family and I were recently displaced and have been unable to permanently return home.

Impact of Hurricanes on Communities

This disaster has left a lasting memory on our communities and families. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands still remain displaced from their homes today. For many of them, their homes have been completely destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. For the many that have returned or visited their homes, they have come back to see their home completely destroyed by water. There are thick layers of sediment that coat the inside of many homes, there is heavy layers of mold coating the interior of the homes from floor to ceiling, roofs have completely collapsed, and some homes were picked up by the water and moved to the middle of streets, if not completely washed away.

1 DSCEJ was founded in 1992 in collaboration with community environmental groups and other universities within the southern region to address environmental justice issues. DSCEJ provides opportunities for communities, scientific researchers, and decision makers to collaborate on programs and projects that promote the rights of all people to be free from environmental harm as it impacts health, jobs, housing, education, and general quality of life. A major goal of DSCEJ is to develop minority leadership in the areas of environmental, social, and economic justice along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor. DSCEJ is a powerful resource for environmental justice education and training.

For me personally, part of my return was not only to address my personal cleanup and retrieval issues, but to also do consulting work – I have been very much in demand since Hurricane Katrina. However, upon seeing my home for the first time and seeing the destruction of my community, I felt quite helpless, angry, and disgusted. Having to fully dress in protective equipment to enter my own home was a personal nightmare. I quickly realized what I was up against. I experienced the difficult task of wading through unknown hazards, and obtaining proper protective gear to cleanup my home and that of neighbors. Thus, I decided to forgo taking advantage of any consulting opportunities, and chose instead to volunteer my time to help and educate my community on how to protect themselves when entering their home and cleaning up the damage. I lent emotional and informational support on how returning residents should protect themselves and helped to prepare them for what they were up against.

I believe that New Orleans can be rebuilt in a manner that reflects its great racial, economic, and cultural diversity. I, along with many others, look forward to returning to our homes to rebuild and reinvigorate this City that we love. However, as a community member and an expert in environmental and occupational health, I am very concerned about the environmental and public health risks that returning residents are facing, and the lack of adequate precaution and education being provided so that returning citizens can protect themselves from any risks that exist.

Environmental and Public Health Risks

From what I understand, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting samples of sediment (mud or soil) from various parts of New Orleans since shortly after hurricane Katrina. Some of the sampling results have been reported on the EPA website. New sediment sampling results were taken on September 25-30, and released on October 7, 2005, including testing for about 150 chemicals at numerous sites in New Orleans and nearby areas.

From the results that I have observed, I am very concerned about the safety of workers participating in cleanup activities and residents returning home. In addition, I am concerned about the lack of full disclosure to the public about contamination in and around residential areas. Finally, I believe that sampling and testing to date is not adequate, especially in hard-hit areas such as the lower and upper 9th ward.

I believe that EPA and other health agencies should immediately broaden toxicity testing of sediments, soils, water, air, and seafood (including both chemical and biological contaminant monitoring), as well as biomonitoring and health surveillance of responders and the public. Immediate widespread testing of sediment and dried mud is critical to ensuring the safety of cleanup workers and returning residents, and for identifying toxic hotspots for containment and cleanup. Big industrial facilities, Superfund sites, and other toxic hotspots should be catalogued and evaluated, and any dangerous releases contained immediately. Immediate public disclosure of all information is also critical.

In short, the most recent EPA data demonstrates the following (thank you to the Natural Resources Defense Council for assisting in the review of EPA’s data):

· Based on test results, EPA and CDC recommend that people avoid all contact with sediment from the flood due to potential health concerns. If you touch sediment, EPA and CDC recommend washing with soap and water, rinsing your eyes, and removing contaminated clothes.

· Bacteria (E. coli) were found in the sediment, indicating persistent problems with sewage contamination. There is no information on what amounts of bacterial contamination is hazardous, but the continuing presence of bacteria shows a need to take safety precautions.

· Toxic metals - lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, manganese, and chromium – were found in most samples. The amount of arsenic in many areas was higher than the “minimum risk level” established by the federal government and was above the remediation level established by Region 6 EPA for soil in residential neighborhoods.

· Petroleum contamination was discovered in most sediment samples, especially from diesel fuel. Many samples from flooded areas were over the levels at which Region 6 EPA or the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality may require soil clean-up in residential areas. Skin contact with sediment contaminated by fuel oil can cause itchy, red, sore, and peeling skin, even after brief contact. Breathing dust contaminated with these chemicals, especially if you breathe them for many days, can cause illness too.

· Other contaminants in the sediment included pesticides, phthalates (chemicals in plastics), several industrial solvents, and PAHs (cancer-causing chemicals in soot).

More Precautions Should Be Taken By Returning Residents

As a public health professional, I have been surprised by the lack of adequate public health advisories and warnings regarding the potential serious environmental and public health impacts of returning to previously flooded areas.

I have personally observed residents and workers in contaminated areas with no protection or safety equipment. I observed residents re-entering their contaminated properties often with young children in hand. Although some people were wearing gloves or using hand sanitizers, after handling contaminated materials they did not properly decontaminate their clothing – they used their clean hands to remove contaminated boots, threw contaminated clothing in the trunks of their cars, or often wore the decontaminated clothing in the cars. I observed many workers conducting cleanup activities with no protective gear at all. Although some workers did wear protective gear, I observed that they would often wear the same suit all day long, in addition to no double suiting, without any change, and then I observed that they failed to decontaminate the equipment after use, or shower after removing contaminated clothing. In several instances, I observed workers with protective gear move from a contaminated site to a non-contaminated site without any decontamination procedures, thus spreading toxics from one place to another.

To address these problems, I wanted to share with you some of my impressions of what kind of precautions I think residents returning to flooded areas with potential contamination should take (thank you to Natural Resources Defense Council for assisting in making these recommendations):

· Sensitive populations (children, the elderly, and people with asthma, heart conditions, or compromised immune systems) should avoid returning until cleanup is completed.

 

· I strongly recommend, if residents do return, that they wear protective gear, limit their time in previously flooded areas, and wash well once they are out of the area and have access to clean water again. Protective gear includes heavy boots, nitrile or vinyl gloves (if they will be touching anything), and a respirator to filter out contaminants. An appropriate respirator would be an N-95 mask that can filter out particulate matter as well as microorganisms (such as spores from mold). If they are removing debris from inside a home, full protective clothing (Tyvek or similar full body protective suit), is also recommended. Protective gear can be purchased at a hardware store or online for less than $50 for a full outfit.

· Dried dirt and mud in and around houses may contain harmful toxic chemicals. Residents should avoid activities that stir up dust (such as sweeping and shoveling). Residents should also avoid eating food or smoking and applying cosmetics in contaminated areas. They should wear two layers of gloves when handling anything that came into contact with the flood water or sediment.

· Drinking water and sewage systems were hit hard by the two storms leaving more than 2.4 million people without safe drinking water. As of October 10, the EPA reported that 270 public water systems in storm-affected states were still on boil water advisories, and at least 289 systems were still inoperable. Boiling water only removes bacteria, but not other contaminants such as metals and toxics. Therefore, residents should avoid drinking the water. To avoid dehydration, they should have plenty of bottled water.

Protect Returning Residents, Don’t Weaken Federal Protections

I urge you to reject all efforts to weaken public health and environmental laws with riders in the appropriations process. Families already injured by the hurricanes should not be placed in further jeopardy by proposals to waive or weaken the laws that guarantee them clean water, healthy air, and safe communities. EPA has not identified the need for any waivers beyond those already allowed by current law therefore the need for flexibility can be accommodated without changes in current law. I urge you ensure that all federal agencies involved in the recovery and rebuilding efforts fully implement and enforce these safeguards, including in minority and low-income communities.

Conclusion

Based upon my professional judgment there are truly many significant environmental and occupational health hazards that need to be addressed. I feel strongly though, that there is no need to instill fear in the public. In the alternative, we can alleviate fear through proper education and full informational disclosure. Residents need to be fully informed of what environmental and health hazards they may face in returning to previously flooded areas, and then be advised of proper precautions to take in order to protect their health and safety. EPA should expand its sampling and monitoring of impacted areas, and make that information fully available to the public with recommendations on steps residents can take to protect themselves. To date, my assessment is that EPA’s sampling work is inadequate to fully inform the public on what risks exists. Finally, I fully oppose any waivers of the key environmental and public health laws that are designed to protect our communities. Families already injured by the hurricanes should not be placed in further jeopardy by proposals to waive or weaken the laws that guarantee them clean water, healthy air, and safe communities. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Majority Office
410 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-6176
Minority Office
456 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-8832