Health, environmental dangers lurk in filthy floodwaters now receding in New England

By Eric Tucker, AP
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Health dangers lurk in New England floodwaters

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The sun is out. The water level is falling. Traffic is starting to flow again. While things appear to be looking up in Rhode Island, the state hit hardest this week by three days of rain and record flooding, health and environmental officials warn there’s still danger below the surface.

Raw sewage, garbage and oil are swirling around in the muddy floodwaters, creating a threat to people as they make their toward and then down New England’s rivers and streams. In Rhode Island, the pollution stands to interrupt swimming and the important shellfishing industry in Narragansett Bay, the ocean inlet whose nooks and crannies give the tiny state more than 400 miles of coastline.

“The impact on this infrastructure is unprecedented,” said Curt Spalding, administrator of the New England region of the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a very rare occurrence when wastewater plants are completely disabled by flood, literally taken out and become inoperable. This is a very serious matter.”

The flooding has forced hundreds of people from their homes and businesses. But there are bright spots: A stretch of Interstate 95, a major East Coast link, reopened to traffic Thursday. State offices reopened, and public colleges and universities were set to do the same Friday.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to tour the flood damage Friday. Members of the state’s congressional delegation are calling on the federal government to step up aid to help the economically battered state cope with the flooding.

President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration for the state earlier in the week and made an unscheduled visit Thursday to Massachusetts, where nearly 3,500 residents have already applied for federal emergency flood assistance. He also called Carcieri on Thursday night and offered as much federal help as necessary to deal with Rhode Island’s massive flooding.

And in some good news from Connecticut, emergency management officials said the Connecticut River is expected to crest about 1½ feet below major flood levels.

Even before the flooding began in earnest, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, anticipating the danger, closed most of the bay and southern coastal ponds to shellfishing until further notice. Fishing was restricted in parts of Massachusetts, as well.

People who eat contaminated seafood or expose themselves to or swallow the bacteria-contaminated water can become sick with diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems and E. coli poisoning.

“When they say sewage is in it, it worries you,” said Chris Palazzi, 43, who was still surveying damage to his Warwick home, where rushing water took out his driveway gravel and seeped into his basement.

Still, while serious in the short term, the problems are expected to dissipate within weeks as the flood water continues to recede — and they pale next to the similar but more sweeping contamination that plagued New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when millions of gallons of oil spilled into neighborhoods and canals.

“This was atypical, but the fish, the birds, the creatures of the bay will weather this just fine,” said John Torgan, a member of the environmental advocacy group Save the Bay.

Narragansett Bay is an estuary, a place where salt and freshwater mix and create an important incubator for sea and avian life. Though no one expects a mass fish kill, it’s possible that species such as starfish and mussels could die if exposed to a sudden, heavy burst of fresh water, Torgan said.

And the bay is bracing for a potential influx of contaminants like garbage or oil from industrial trucking facilities, already visible in the storm water floating across low-lying areas and down rivers.

“There will be a big load of sediment that hits Narragansett Bay. There’ll be a lot of polluted runoff, oils and things that are on our streets normally, on our lawns, on the watershed,” Spalding said. “It will come all at once.”

But so far, he added, he has not seen any major release of hazardous chemicals.

No public water supplies are known to have been contaminated, but people supplied by four small water systems are urged to boil it as a precaution. The state health department has asked restaurants to close if they were flooded in any area and environmental officials are urging caution for anyone cleaning up indoor fuel spills. And anyone who walks through the filthy floodwaters is potentially at risk.

Rhode Island health director David Gifford said he was unaware of anyone who had reported becoming sick but was monitoring the situation because of the extent of the flooding.

“This is happening in a lot of places; it’s pretty widespread,” Gifford said. “So it’s affecting a lot of people.”

Wastewater treatment plants ordinarily treat and purify waste and then discharge it back into the water.

But this week, as the region experienced the end of its rainiest month on record and the Pawtuxet River, normally 9 feet deep, crested at a record 20.79 feet, treatment plants in Warwick and West Warwick had to be shut down and a pump station in nearby Cranston gave out.

The two plants and the pump station account for more than 20 million gallons of raw sewage, said William Patenaude, an engineer for the state Department of Environmental Management.

Robin Schutt, Cranston’s director of administration, said concerns have shifted now that the water has receded in some areas and many people have moved into a cleanup phase.

“We’ve been blessed with no fatalities,” she said, “but now with cleanup and people going back in, it’s one of the most critical times for safety.”

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