For the next month and a half, state and federal partners will be combing the levees, ridges and marshes of southeast Louisiana looking for orphaned containers that were left behind by Hurricane Isaac’s storm surge.
Starting on Oct. 15, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality have been using aerial photos and on-the-ground investigations to identify “targets” of areas that contain orphaned containers.
Lt. Scott Houle, deputy incident command with the U.S. Coast Guard, said flights directly after the storm showed more than 160 of these target areas that needed to be addressed. By the time the initial response was completed, there were about 40 target areas left over, he said.
“One target is 10 miles long, so that 40 is really misleading,” said Jeff Dauzat, environmental scientist with DEQ. “You can see some of these debris fields are huge.”
Dauzat showed one picture where a ridge of trees trapped a large field of containers and vegetation. He said these debris fields can be many feet thick, which means you don’t know what’s out there until you start digging.
Most of the material that’s been identified so far is located along the levees and in nearby marshes of Plaquemines Parish.
It will be necessary to get into these areas by foot or boat, and workers need to be careful not to puncture or damage containers.
“So they have to go through carefully, they don’t want to create another problem,” Dauzat said.
Although the $2 million, two-month operation to cleanup and dispose of the abandoned containers is a large job, it’s much smaller than the agencies have faced in past hurricanes. The state is responsible for $500,000 of that funding.
Mike Algero, southeast regional manager with DEQ, compared the scope of the cleanup with Hurricane Katrina, when there were 6,000 targets in Plaquemines Parish alone.
“In sheer numbers, it’s a lot less,” Algero said.
The post-Isaac work has focused initially along the levees of Plaquemines Parish where the containers and vegetative debris were left after the storm. Starting Oct. 31, that work was moving into the marsh areas around Plaquemines Parish as well, Houle said.
When a container is found, it is brought back to the staging area in Belle Chasse and the contents of the containers are tested, said Adam Adams, on-scene coordinator for EPA Region 6. The testing determines what kind of material is in each container and whether is flammable or corrosive.
The largest amount of material they’ve found so far is oily water.
Once the testing is done, compatible material is bulked together and any material that can be recycled, such as the oil and water mixed waste, is recycled to help save money. Adams estimated that recycling is about 20 percent of the cost of disposal.
“Anywhere we can save,” Dauzat said. “Recycling is key to that, to save as much money and let us pickup more containers.”
The containers also are inspected for labels that could indicate who owns the material and ultimately is responsible for it, Adams said.
“When the stuff comes in and has a label, we’ll call the (responsible party) and have them collect it,” Adams said.
However, so far, it’s not been common to find a label. Out of the 200 drums in the staging area, there were probably four with identifying marks that lead to a responsible party, he said Wednesday.
He said that could change when workers begin their searches in the marsh areas.