From the air, it's obvious what eastern North Carolina is up
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
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
Keeping this contaminated water out of area drinking water has
already proved difficult. …