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Publication date: Sep. 7, 2005


SEJ officers wrote EPA September 6, 2005, urging quick action on FOIA requests for post-Katrina pollution reports from a growing number of journalists. EPA's Web site had bragged of 12 field teams doing "initial assessments of the environmental impacts including potential impacts from chemical facilities, oil refineries, and water treatment plants." But SEJ members requesting the results of those assessments filed FOIA requests after finding EPA "unresponsive."

At stake may be the health of hundreds of thousands of people still in the hurricane-stricken Gulf coast region, home to a major fraction of US petrochemical production and refining activity. State officials reported some 500 sewage plants in LA and 1223 drinking water plants knocked out in LA, MS, and AL. Four deaths of evacuees were attributed by the Centers for Disease Control to water-contact wound infections from a common vibrio bacteria. Meanwhile, engineers with little alternative pumped a brew of unknown pollutants from the flooded city of New Orleans into Lake Ponchartrain.

The letter, from Society of Environmental Journalists President Perry Beeman and SEJ 1st Amendment Task Force Chair Ken Ward Jr., sought to "encourage the U.S. EPA to quickly respond to requests for more detailed information about chemical spills and other environmental releases resulting from Hurricane Katrina."

EPA's reputation for providing prompt and candid information about post-disaster environmental conditions suffered a serious blow in 2001, when then-administrator Christine Todd Whitman offered public assurances at White House direction that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe, when in fact the agency had inadequate data to support those assurances.

SEJ's letter noted: "Mark Schleifstein, reporter at The Times-Picayune and an SEJ board member, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday, September 5, 2005, for information about the environmental consequences of Katrina, after his efforts to obtain answers without a formal request were unsuccessful." Schleifstein, a Pulitzer prize-winner, co-authored a 2002 5-part front-page series titled "Washing Away," which presciently warned of a disaster like Katrina's effects on New Orleans.

Last revised January 22, 2013

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