Wave of Pollution Sullies North Carolina ; Officials Strive to Control Waste and Other Contaminants Unleashed By

Article excerpt

From the air, it's obvious what eastern North Carolina is up against.

New rooflines emerge from swollen creeks and rivers each day as flood waters recede. The outlines of the local airport's runways are just now visible, as are LearJets that have been submerged for more than a week.

But as the long-term recovery effort here finds its pace this week, it is the unseen threat contained in the coffee-colored waters that public-health officials are most concerned about.

During the past week and a half of flooding, waters have swept a wide range of contaminants downstream. Gasoline from cars and underground fuel tanks, animal waste from hog operations, and perhaps even residues from two Superfund sites have congealed into a noxious brew of muck and mud.

In the end, officials don't expect an environmental cataclysm - many of these contaminants tend to degrade quickly and have short half lives. But the polluted soup remains dangerous until the residue degrades or evaporates, public-health officials say, and they are working to keep residents clear until they better know the scope of the damage.

"This is a public-health threat ... before it's an environmental threat," says A. Robert Rubin of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Mr. Rubin, a waste-management expert, points to the myriad sources of contamination. In the 18,000-square-mile area, factories, junkyards, sewage-treatment facilities, and hog lagoons (which collect and process waste) were overrun.

Moreover, a variety of chemicals - pesticides and herbicides from industrial parks, warehouses, and farm storage sites - have all been dispersed into the open water. Petroleum from leaking underground fuel tanks left colorful streaks in the surging waters.

Now, all these impurities are settling into the ground.

"We've had a large number of automobiles that were abandoned that are still in the water," says Lisa Schell, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. "Think about all of the oil and gasoline seeping from them."

"I've heard several reports of folks going to gas stations, and when they turn on the nozzle, water is coming out," she adds. "You've got to figure that the gas has somehow leached out into the ground water."

Keeping this contaminated water out of area drinking water has already proved difficult. …