The brew of chemicals and human waste in the New Orleans floodwaters will have to be pumped into the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain, raising the specter of an environmental disaster on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, experts say.
The dire need to rid the drowned city of water could trigger fish kills and poison the delicate wetlands near New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Van Heerden and Rodney Mallett, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, say there do not appear to be any choices other than to pump the water into Lake Pontchartrain or the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, a key maritime spawning ground.
“I don’t see how we could treat all that water,” Mallett said.
The result could be an second wave of disaster for southern Louisiana, said Harold Zeliger, a Florida-based chemical toxicologist and water quality consultant.
“In effect, it’s going to kill everything in those waters,” he said.
Bio-remediation — cleaning up the water — would require the time and expense of constructing huge storage facilities, considered an impossibility, especially with the public clamor to get the water out quickly.
Mallett said the Department of Environmental Quality was in the unfortunate position of being responsible for protecting the environment in a situation where that did not seem possible.
“We’re not happy about it. But for the sake of civilization and lives, probably the best thing to do is pump the water out,” he said.
If the water is pumped into the Mississippi River, there will be a lot of damage to the river’s ecosystem. And then the toxic water will quickly flow into the Gulf of Mexico, causing more damage.
But the gulf is enormous, so the chemicals will eventually diffuse throughout the water, and will no longer be in such deadly concentrations.
Lake Pontchartrain, however, does not flow like a river directly into another body of water. It plays a game of give-and-take with the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes taking in the gulf’s salt water, and sometimes releasing its own brackish water into the gulf. So, whatever poisons are pumped into Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans are likely to stay there in disturbingly large concentrations for a relatively long time.
And that is likely to kill just about every living thing in the lake.
Here is some information about the soon-to-be-dead fauna of Lake Pontchartrain:
The citizens of the Pontchartrain Basin have been trying to bring back wildlife not only in the water, but also in the air. For a while brown pelicans were almost extinct because a chemical being used to protect plants. When it would rain, nutrients and fertilizers would wash into the lake and make the water cloudy, which blocked sunlight. Fish ate or absorbed these chemicals through their skin and by eating food that the chemical had entered. The pelicans ate the fish, which killed the pelicans because of the chemical in the fish’s bodies. We did our best to restore the pelicans and now they can be seen everywhere.
In Lake Pontchartrain there are over 125 species of fish. Out of all the fish, the most abundant species of fish is the anchovy. Even manatee and porpoise have been sited in the lake, but the porpoise die because of a bacterium that they get when swimming in the lake. Many sharks have been seen in the lake.
In the Lake Pontchartrain Basin there is a huge variety of marine, land and bird life. It includes animals from swallows to wild boar.
The Basin provides a habitat for a large variety of birds in Louisiana. Fifty percent of all North American migratory birds pass through Southeast Louisiana, yet vehicles kill twelve thousand a year. Twice a year there are an estimated eight million Purple Martins migrating through Southeast Louisiana.
This site even has a nice graph of the relative abundance of various forms of life in the lake.
I wish I could offer ya’ll some good news on this subject, but there ain’t any to be had, I’m afraid…