When the Waters Recede, Let There Be Green

You may have read EPA's first report on the environmental contamination from Hurricane Katrina. The news from it offers little insight to residents wondering about the origin and fate of the materials found. Operating from a very limited definition of "environment" EPA has yet to present even these sparse data in a way that empowers planning for action. So we thought we'd give it a try at the information level, and we'll wait for EPA to catch up with more data later. The oily flood water we've all heard about has an obvious explanation: oil floats on water; and plenty of oil-displacing water has entered restaurant grease diposal tanks, below ground filling station tanks, car and truck fuel tanks, industrial processes and containers, and so on. The good news is that the New Orleans heat will evaporate and promote rapid biodegradation of organic materials . Ethanol from the bars and even that in gasoline is like candy to bacteria and will soon be broken down to C02, for example.Also reported were elevated lead and chrome levels. Gulf Coast cities have many historic structures, some undoubtedly wearing undercoats of lead-based paint. As the winds and water tore apart these old structures, these liberated paint chips, possibly mixed with the dust of a previous generation's lead anti-knock additive.

Heavy metals like lead are associated with coal, and chrome with the residues of stainless steel process equipment. Coal dust from ancient basement coal bins and power plant stockpiles might account for some of what's being found in the EPA samples, for example.

The Gulf coast is the recent home of the invasive and destructive Formosan Termite as well as native termite species. Before the recent ban by USEPA of copper/chrome/arsenic (CCA) pressure treated wood, treated lumber was used for footers, uprights, and decking to help resist termites and biodegradation. The presence of metals that may have originated from treated lumber comes as no surprise.

Landfilling is going to be needed for the broken timbers, facade elements, cladding, roofing, tree limbs, and roots. However, large scale building material recycling certainly could be feasible. Perhaps the efforts of sorting, cleaning, preparing, and distribution can provide some jobs and raw materials for a new crew of green designers.

To make recycling of construction waste safe, and deal with the lead paint that remains, we expect a lot of lead test kits to be sold. Are there enough pressure washers in the whole country to do this job we wonder? What sort of personal protection is appropriate for everyday people to use? And what kind of surfactants are green and yet effective enough for the cleanup? Fast answers needed.

As for the fallen trees, that's a whole lot of potential fire wood or mulch. We can hardly imagine that the nation needs the volume of wood chips that Katrina could provide; plus, grinding it all into mulch would be energy intensive and polluting. Without proper sorting, there's a chance that CCA treated wood will be mulched in with the landscape trimmings and stumps. Keeping that stuff for the landfill is important.

The heating season on the gulf coast is brief, and severe cold so rare that reliance on small wood burning space heaters could be sensible, especially for those with little money to spend on a new furnace. Some wood burning pellet models are designed to emit little in the way of particulates or carbon monoxide. An EPA list of low emission certified wood stoves is here.

Given the scale of the problem, TreeHuggers need to get ready for the challenges of cleanup, turning waste into resources, getting the right technologies, and planting pollution tolerant native trees. That's what we think anyhow. What about you?