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Heavy contamination of New Orleans sediment hinders testing

CHALMETTE, La.—Environmental technician Tommy DeSaro squatted in a supermarket parking lot in this industrial suburb of New Orleans, his yellow boots sticking and making squishy noises in 6 inches of oily slime.

"It's like walking on honey," DeSaro said Monday, scooping up a handful of the goo with a plastic shovel and shaking it into a sample jar. On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that these sediments—the mushy leftovers of Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters—are anything but sweet.

The sediments in parts of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes are so contaminated with petroleum products that the EPA hasn't been able to sort out what other potentially hazardous chemicals are spread across the region, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said in a news conference.

Oily sediment contamination is widespread in testing all along a swath of New Orleans and into St. Bernard Parish, locally called "the smear zone," Johnson said, pointing to a map of dozens of sampling sites.

"Clearly we've got a petroleum—at least in the sites behind me—problem," Johnson said.

But that's just a portion of the environmental fallout from the nation's worst natural disaster in the last generation:

_Floodwaters were full of feces and bacteria.

_Public drinking water systems weren't working.

_A tremendous yet unknown amount of debris—some of it hazardous—needs to be disposed of.

_The storm damaged 31 toxic Superfund sites and 466 chemical, manufacturing or sewage treatment plants.

_EPA officials keep finding empty drums of hazardous material, including one large, red hazardous medical waste container.

_There have been 396 calls to the EPA and Coast Guard hotline regarding oil and chemical spills.

But the oily muck is turning out to be especially difficult.

"It appears everything on this side has oil," said Michael J. Szerlog, the on-scene coordinator for EPA's emergency response team. "We didn't know the extent of the oil contamination."

No sediment test results are in yet because scientists are still trying to get around the overwhelming taint of petroleum, Johnson said. But he said eventually results will come in and will get posted publicly.

"Given what we see, we'd advise a great deal of precaution" in handling tainted sediments or coming in contact with the muck, Johnson said.

There've been five oil spills in New Orleans alone, Johnson said. The Murphy Oil Co. spill in St. Bernard Parish involved 880,000 gallons. It's been stopped.

"A lot of very serious decision-making has to occur," said Mike McDaniel, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. "There are a lot of questions about safety and health hazards." He said many homes in the worst hit areas, which are covered with potentially hazardous muck, "ultimately will have to be disposed of."

But it may not be as bad as it sounds, said Louisiana State University environmental studies professor Ed Overton, the head of a federal chemical analysis team for oil spills. Oil is biodegradable.

"When contaminants are attached to sediments, people don't eat sediments," Overton said. "I wouldn't be too worried about it."

But the sludge will remain in Lake Ponchatrain, take a long time to degrade and create a small dead zone deep in the lake, Overton said.

"There's the big mess; it's got to be shoveled up," Overton said.

Meanwhile, state environment officials had good news about the waters on Wednesday.

McDaniel, Louisiana's top environmental official, said tests of floodwaters in New Orleans and its suburbs have found high levels of bacterial contamination, but that toxic chemicals and heavy metals so far are below levels of "acute concern."

On Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was optimistic that residents would be able to return to the French Quarter and Uptown by Monday, if the environmental tests allow. EPA's Johnson said it would be a joint state, local and federal decision.

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(Fitzgerald of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported from Louisiana, Borenstein from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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