Hurricane Damage: 1,400 Toxic Barrels in Sabine Wildlife Refuge

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2006 (ENS) - Government consultants report that more than 1,400 barrels of toxic liquids and gases are sinking into the coastal wetlands of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge as a result of Hurricane Rita, which smashed southwestern Louisiana last September.

A report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and just released to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) finds that 115,000 to 350,000 gallons of everything from oil and bleach to propane are contained within those barrels.

Four containers of chlorine gas, which kills immediately upon exposure, were found, and two entire 18 wheelers were identified during the debris survey of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge on which the report is based. Their contents is unknown.

"An additional unknown number [of barrels] are undetected or not visible," the report says. "It is likely that, without the address of these issues, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge will be at significant risk of chemical and physical damages for decades."


Debris dumped by Hurricane Rita still lies scattered across the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit unknown)
The refuge, on the coast near the Louisiana and Texas border, lacks the funding to begin removing the 1,400 barrels of toxics, which are strewn across the refuge.

The barrels are part of a six mile long debris field which can be seen from space and is thought to be the longest in the state. Much of the debris was created when nearby oil and gas facilities were ripped apart by the hurricane. More than 70 platforms and drilling rigs completely destroyed and more than 40 were damaged.

"This is really a simple question do we want to clean this up now, while the impacts and costs are relatively manageable, or do we want to wait until this becomes a massive Superfund cleanup project?" said Evan Hirsche, chair of the Cooperative Alliance For Refuge Enhancement, a group of 21 nonprofit organizations committed to protecting wildlife refuges.

Neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been granted authority to work on the refuge lands, says Hirsche. The Department of the Interior lacks the funding to act, and current proposals before congressional appropriators appear too small to make any real difference, he says.

The destruction at Sabine has been devastating to its wildlife, Hirsche says. Dead animals alligators, small mammals and fish are scattered throughout the refuge.

The main trail through the refuge is closed, crippling the local ecotourism economy, which can bring in as much as $1.5 million daily. The toxic stew is seeping into the groundwater, putting local people at risk.

Written by Zach Nixon and Jacqueline Michel of Research Planning, Inc. based in Columbia, South Carolina, the report is based on ground and aerial surveys and remote sensing data.


In this aerial photo of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, debris is seen scattered across the mud. (Photo courtesy Nixon and Michel)
In addition to the hazardous debris, the researchers identified thousands of non-toxic debris items such as pieces of vinyl or aluminum siding, insulation, plywood, corrugated metal, lumber and white goods such as refrigerators and water heaters that may contain small amounts of toxics.

Nixon and Michel estimate that there are 2,900 separate debris piles within the boundaries of the refuge, covering more than 1,730 acres or about 1.5 percent of its total area.

There are more than seven million cubic meters of debris in the refuge, and "the piles themselves represent a significant physical and ecological modification to the landscape" of the refuge, they report.

"It is likely that there are significant numbers of HAZMAT debris items buried in the debris piles and not currently visible," the report states.

In their report, Nixon and Michel offer three recommendations.

First, they recommend development of a detailed plan for removal of the identified items of hazardous materials (HAZMAT). Much has already been learned during HAZMAT removal actions in Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, they say.

As of January 30, they write, responders in coastal Louisiana are still working on removal of HAZMAT items from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina outside of federal lands, many located in remote and sensitive wetland areas. Responders are developing technologies and tracking costs for their removal, and their experiences can be used to evaluate cost effective technologies that will not further damage marsh habitats, Nixon and Michel suggest.

In southeast Louisiana, costs as of mid-January 2006 have been estimated to $800 per drum and $1,600 per larger container. "These costs are based on the difficult working conditions in St. Bernard Parish, where crews are getting only about four hours of actual work per day. The response team expects to increase their efficiency over time and cut these costs in half," they report.

Cost estimates for removal of large items with heavy lift helicopters are $4 million for 240 large items where the liquids have mostly been removed already, Nixon and Michel write.

debris field

This six mile long debris field was left by Hurricane Rita which made landfall on September 24, 2005. (Photo credit unknown)
Second, they suggest that surveys be conducted to identify buried debris items. Thermal surveys appear to be most promising and least expensive method, they recommend.

Finally, they say it will be important to continue monitoring the debris piles that remain after removal actions are finished

"The large amount of non-vegetative material in the debris piles poses significant risks to the habitat and use of the refuge," write Nixon and Michel. "Monitoring is necessary to track the rate of decay of the vegetative and woody material and track the behavior and fate of the persistent materials.

Hirsche of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement warns that the situation in Sabine is a public health issue. "A national wildlife refuge could be declared a Superfund site," he told ENS in an interview. "We've got a severe situation with ramifications for groundwater, wildlife and people that depend on it for their well being."

Hirsche supports a request for emergency supplemental funding sent to Congress by President George W. Bush. It includes $132 million for cleanup of the 61 wildlife refuges in the Gulf Coast hurricane-stricken region, in addition to the $30 million approved by Congress two months ago.

But Hirsche says his group is concerned that funding for habitat restoration is not included in the budget requests made to date. Saltwater incursion has claimed miles of the coastal area, he says, suggesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs $75 million for habitat restoration.

Refuges in the Gulf coast states are havens for migratory songbirds, waterfowl, herons, egrets, spoonbills, and they are habitats that support a whole range of species.

"Even with all of this seemingly bad news, there is still a glimmer of hope," said Hirsche. "If we can convince our federal and state officials that this is important enough to focus on immediately, we can save future generations a dollar tomorrow for what we can spend a dime on today."