From: John Heilprin, Associated Press
Published October 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Delta Waters After Katrina Now OK for Recreation, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — While casting a nervous eye at Hurricane Wilma, federal and state officials reported Friday that the latest pollution data in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina indicated for the first time that the Mississippi Delta was again a safe place to swim.


"This is encouraging for recreational uses, but the data should not be used for assessing the safety of consuming shellfish," Benjamin Grumbles, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's water office, told reporters.


Environmental and health officials had previously recommended that people avoid contact with floodwaters that have since been pumped into Lake Pontchartrain and should use soap and clean water to decontaminate themselves if contact couldn't be avoided. Sediment left behind should be avoided because of fecal bacteria, chemicals, metals and other contaminants it might contain, officials said Friday.


Water samples from 20 locations in the Gulf of Mexico's river channels and near shorelines were collected aboard The Bold, EPA's sole ship for monitoring ocean and coastal waters. The data from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2 showed the presence of a type of sewage-related bacteria, Enterococcus, but at levels that didn't violate freshwater or marine water standards, the agency said.


EPA was awaiting further analysis for another type of sewage-related bacterium, Clostridium perfringens, which also causes diarrhea, nausea and other stomach illness.


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The agency on Friday dispatched officials to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's regional headquarters in Atlanta and EPA's own emergency center in Tallahassee, Fla., to deal with any oil or hazardous material spills from Wilma.


FEMA and other federal and local agencies urged residents in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to watch closely Wilma's path. Some areas of the Florida mainland were ordered evacuated ahead of the powerful, slow-moving hurricane.


"We, like everyone else, have our eyes on the tracking of Hurricane Wilma," Grumbles said.


In New Orleans, EPA has been allowing raw sewage not fully disinfected to flow into the Mississippi River in at least two places because of broken treatment facilities, said Chris Piehler, senior environmental scientist for Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality.


Grumbles said EPA was "closely monitoring the situation."


There have been no such identifiable releases of sewage contamination in the Gulf of Mexico's waters along Mississippi, said Phil Bass, director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality's Office of Pollution Control.


"We're still advising, not because of water contamination, but because of debris primarily in our waters, to stay out of the (Mississippi) Sound," Bass said. "We're happy to report that some of our shrimping is back in operation. Our fin fishery appears to be healthy and that's beginning to come back."


Federal officials emphasized they were only commenting on the safety of swimming or boating in Mississippi Delta waters and accidentally swallowing a gulp. They still recommend not drinking the water and expressed caution about consuming undercooked or raw shellfish such as oysters.


The Food and Drug Administration "has no reason to question the safety of commercially available seafood from Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama," said Donald Kraemer, the acting head of its seafood office. Kraemer said none of the pollution data shows contamination "at or above levels of concern" for crab, shrimp and most fish with fins.


Steve Murawski, chief science adviser to the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service, said all the federal data sampling and test results have been coordinated through the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.


Murawski noted that all the results were preliminary, since some of the contaminants might take time to work their way through the water, air and land, and into the food chain.


Source: Associated Press


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