EPA cleans up post-storm toxins

Hurricanes can inflict serious environmental impact.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 28, 2004

Hurricanes inflict more than just structural damage - they can also have a serious environmental impact.

Oil spills, missing chemical drums, toxic leaks - the Environmental Protection Agency helps local and state authorities respond to any number of these disasters that unfold in a storm's wake. In coastal regions, the U.S. Coast Guard pitches in.

In the wake of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, the EPA has secured and disposed of numerous flood-swept chemical drums in Florida, according to Carl Terry, a regional EPA spokesperson. As assessments continue in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne, the EPA is prepared to do the same thing.

"We're dealing with oil spills, lost propane tanks, and chemical drums - some with labeled contents and some without," said Terry.

If residents see a chemical drum or potentially toxic spill, they should notify local emergency management authorities as soon as possible, said Terry. The same goes for people and businesses that lose a propane tank or chemical drum.

"People should do what they can to secure their own tanks and such, but that can only go so far when homes are being blown away," he noted.

Storms can also affect EPA facilities and labeled Superfund sites. After Hurricane Ivan, two such sites in Florida's panhandle experienced minor damages, the EPA's Gulf Breeze Laboratory and the Escambia Wood Treating Superfund Site. Both were promptly secured, with Terry adding that the U.S. Coast Guard checks on them daily.

The EPA was active in western North Carolina in recent weeks as well due to the significant hurricane-caused flooding. Workers removed hundreds of drums, tanks, and other chemical containers from the Pigeon and Swannanoa rivers. Close to 20,000 gallons of diesel oil were recovered from leaking tanks or saturated soil to prevent contamination of the Swannanoa River.

Apart from chemical spills, state departments of environmental protection must also contend with the potentially toxic hurricane debris. Asbestos cleanup, appliance disposal, and even removal of rotten food due to power outages are all problems in the wake of major storms.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released an Emergency Final Order after each of the state's hurricanes this season. The order "provides relief from the DEP's regulatory and proprietary requirements for obtaining permits and authorizations" for actions such as hazardous disposal, repairs to wastewater facilities, and asbestos cleanup.

The most recent order for Hurricane Jeanne lasts until Nov. 26.

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