Panel debates EPA role in saying when storm areas are safe

Witnesses disagree over whether it's the federal government's job to determine when ravaged regions should be reopened to residents.

With millions of Gulf Coast residents still at risk from water, air and chemical pollution, witnesses at a House hearing disagreed Thursday over whether the federal government has the responsibility for telling them when it is safe to return.

Marcus Peacock, deputy EPA administrator, told the House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee his agency is testing extensively for hazardous substances in the area struck by Hurricane Katrina, but that the agency's job is only to provide "guidance" to state and local officials who make the final call.

Residents from the Gulf Coast and environmentalists praised EPA's testing, but claimed many residents are confused about what to do and insisted EPA has the legal and moral responsibility for telling people when their neighborhood is safe.

The most emotional testimony came from Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans.

She complained that residents got little useful information. "No one seems to be telling people how dangerous it is there," she said, adding that EPA needs "to do a better job than it is doing."

Peacock ticked off statistics on hazards, and then Wright put a face on them. "Mold of every color has covered every piece of furniture" on two floors of her home, she said. Peacock said the EPA circulated 3,500 fact sheets, but Wright said she had not seen one.

Erik Olson, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, insisted EPA has the legal responsibility to determine when an area is safe.

Peacock estimated drinking water facilities that once served 2.3 million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama "are still not currently operational."

Also, 1.8 million people in those states do not have working wastewater facilities, he said. No conclusive testing has been done yet on long-term effects of any hazards, he added.

When Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., questioned Peacock about what dangers still lurk in the water, Peacock said "the main problem is E. coli and Coliform bacteria."

Citing the remaining problems, Murphy asked Wright if New Orleans "will ever be habitable again?"

"Are you going to ask everyone in California to leave because of earthquakes?" Wright replied.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, said the hearing was only a start toward looking at the hazards Katrina left and that he saw no need yet for new legislation.

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