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EPA Administrator Briefs Reporters on EPA Efforts in Gulf Coast: Transcript of Sept. 14 Press Roundtable

Speaker(s): EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson

Moderator: Eryn Witcher




Washington, DC

09/14/2005, 01:09 PM




P-R-O-C-E-E-D-I-N-G

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: And we are simply doing this so that people who aren't here picking up the typewriters. So obviously, everyone, all reporters are welcome to all parts of it. I know we have producers. We have everyone. So welcome. The first 40 minutes -- had -- Then we're going to open it up. We'll reset. Mr. Johnson will give a statement or -- reporting for broadcast -- for the radio portion so radios can report.

And then he will have to step out and he'll step in front of the cameras and he'll give a statement to the cameras and then he'll take Q&A. Are there any questions?

PARTICIPANT: Yes, how do we ask questions?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: That was laid out in the press advisory. Forty minutes print, 20 minutes radio. Everyone can be here for everything. I'm just saying if you can report and then walk out and step in front of the camera.

PARTICIPANT: How do we ask questions?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: We laid it out. Anyone who called us knows there would be five minutes.

PARTICIPANT: Excuse me.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Yes?

PARTICIPANT: Hello?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Yes.

PARTICIPANT: How do we ask questions?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: After Administrator Johnson gives his remarks, we'll open it up to questions. I'm just going to ask that everyone -- We'll start with everyone giving one question until we run out of time. We will do one, we'll start with one in the room, one on the phone and keep alternating until we get through as many people as possible. We just ask that you identify yourself before you ask your question.

PARTICIPANT: There's a great deal of background noise and when we ask questions, do you press *1 or something? This is not like other phone briefings I've ever been involved in.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I used the phone system that we had here and that's what they told me our capabilities are -- enough information as we can.

PARTICIPANT: Okay.

PARTICIPANT: How soon is this going to start?

PARTICIPANT: She left for a minute.

PARTICIPANT: Yes, how soon is this going to start?

PARTICIPANT: Eryn's gone. So it's just us. We don't know.

PARTICIPANT: And Steve is not in the room yet.

PARTICIPANT: Is there any way of dealing with this background? It sounds like there's a local swimming pool.

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. Perhaps that's apropos.

PARTICIPANT: Is there a door open to the corridor or something because it sounds like an echo chamber?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, we're closed.

PARTICIPANT: Thanks.

PARTICIPANT: It might echo a little bit. It's a big room.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I'm sorry. Before I grab the Administrator, any other questions?

PARTICIPANT: Eryn, can I just ask you a question because I just got an email from Jim Jefferds (PH). The Administrator gave a private briefing to Senators and things.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Yes. The EPW Committee asked him to give them a briefing on what he was doing and that's what he did this morning.

PARTICIPANT: Okay.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: And that's why I'm here. So you can ask him all the questions.

PARTICIPANT: Hello? Is this mute?

PARTICIPANT: No.

PARTICIPANT: Okay.

PARTICIPANT: There it goes. And you know you have the -- so you can put it out now.

PARTICIPANT: Okay --

PARTICIPANT: Eryn, are you still there?

PARTICIPANT: EPA.

PARTICIPANT: I wonder how much that's going to cost the company. That's not an 800 number --

(Several speaking but inaudible.)

PARTICIPANT: Three dollars for one minute.

PARTICIPANT: I wonder when it's going to get started.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Can everybody be sure to mute their phones?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. That way we don't hear keys clicking. That would be great.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I would ask that you just save the questions until the end. Administrator Johnson is going to open with some remarks and then we'll open it up to questions and answers.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Very well. Thank you very much for joining us. I've had the opportunity before lunch to brief the Senate Environmental Public Works Committee and I thought that it would be also important to keep the public informed as to what EPA is doing. Obviously, as the rest of America, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

But certainly in addition to thoughts and prayers, EPA is on the scene. We've been on the scene. We prepositioned on-the-scene coordinators before the storm and we're on the scene taking care of water, air and land issues there.

This is the largest national disaster that we at EPA or we believe that the nation has faced and certainly in my experience here at EPA of this December 25 years it is the largest natural disaster we've faced. We are in real time. This is a snapshot in time as to the events and the actions that the Agency's taking.

What I would like to do is to give you a little bit of a walk-through and I have on one of the charts is the things I'd like to cover in the brief time, our immediate response, water quality, land, air, helping prevent disease and communication. Those will be the possible areas that I can cover in a few minutes we have. Again, I'd be happy to answer questions.

Our immediate response. As I said, we've prepositioned our on-the-scene coordinators in Alabama and in Mississippi and in Baton Rouge on August 27th and August 28th. We deployed over 50 of our water-craft. We now have onsite and you can see the chart showing 470 staff in the Louisiana area, 157 in Mississippi and 19 in the Alabama area. Our efforts began early on and before the hurricane hit.

As the hurricane passed, then we began deploying at recommendations of our on-the-scene coordinators the teams of people that you now see on the chart before you. We also began to identify what were the immediate concerns.

The most immediate concerns that we faced and certainly seen and was asked for assistance and that was saving lives. We found that there were many people, in fact, and as we've all witnessed stranded particularly in the city of New Orleans. So the EPA team who were on the scene early rather than doing environmental assessment were actually rescuing people. Our last count was the EPA team has rescued almost 800 people, obviously the right priority.

We then turned our attention after the initial rescue effort to beginning to assess the environment damage that's been done. The first area was water quality. A lot of questions --

(Technical difficulties.)

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: All right. Now are we ready?

PARTICIPANT: Yes.

<flood water audio clip begins>

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: All right. Let's try. The first issue I wanted to cover is water quality and one of the questions that we were asking ourselves is certainly what is the quality of the floor water. We began taking water samples on September 3rd looking for bacteria, particularly coliform and E. coli, and we were looking for over hundred priority chemicals ranging from pesticides to metals to other industrial chemicals. We began sampling on September 3rd.

I also shortly thereafter asked our Science Advisory Board to convene an emergency expert panel to provide advice and counsel to Agency on flood water sampling and making sure that the continuing and the future of flood water sampling was done in an appropriate and scientific sound way. I appreciate the Science Advisory Board's input to us.

<flood water audio clip ends >

On September 7th was when I was briefed with the preliminary results from the flood water and it was clear at that time that given the bacteria levels and also lead contamination that the water was unsafe, unsafe for the residents, unsafe for rescue workers. That's why Dr. Herberding from CDC and I -- I did radio interviews and certainly did a press conference to highlight --

(Technical difficulties.)

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Whoever is on the line outside. please put it on mute. All right. We'll continue. We have sampled every day. We are continuing and will continue to sample the flood waters until the flood waters have receded and we are continuing to post the results of those flood waters on our website and obviously make those available to the first emergency responders and the teams that are on the ground.

Again, we're continuing to sample. We're seeing a range of chemicals from 24D, barium, chromium, copper, sodium, iron. Again, for those that have EPA Health Advisories or there are government standards, the only ones that have been exceeded thus far have been bacteria and lead. But there are other chemicals that are showing up in the water.

So we are continuing to do the sampling. You see on one of the charts both in front or behind me as well as one of the charts that is in your packet of what our flood water sample of plan is, those samples that have been taken, those that are part of our plan and yet to be taken and as we get those results, then we will share with everyone.

It's obviously important. Everyone is looking to EPA for what are the results and are these done in a scientifically-appropriate and sound way? We're doing that. We're not trying to be bureaucratic. We want to make sure the results are ones that we can all stand by. So we're continuing to monitor flood water.

Drinking water and waste water, the next area I want to talk about. On the chart, you can see literally the hundreds of facilities that are or were in the path of the first -- ranging from small community water systems to large community water systems. We are in the process with the state of assessing each of those.

In some cases, they are not operating because there is no electricity. In other cases, they are operating but there is boil water advisory because of our analysis to-date with the water unsafe. For example, in the New Orleans system drinking water, two drinking water systems for the downtown New Orleans are operating but there's boil water advisory in effect in New Orleans. So we have a parallel effort of working with the states and the communities to bring up the community water system, drinking water system.

Also I have a chart showing the municipal waste water facility, again, to get a sense of the magnitude, the number of waste water facilities there are in the effected area and there are many in the Louisiana and Mississippi area particularly that are not operating. And obviously we're working with the state and local communities to try to get those to be operational. Again, a variety of situations.

So drinking water systems obviously need attention. Waste water treatment systems need attention and we're on the scene to try to help the state and local communities bring this back up.

We have deployed two of our mobile labs to the area to try to help and provide real time water sampling, drinking water sampling, so that we can help facilitate and expedite information on whether the water is safe to drink or not for those systems that are up and operating.

The fourth area that I wanted to talk about under water quality is Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River and the Gulf. We, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and USGS are doing a range of sampling to assess the water in those areas. Again, our first concern was the flood water and the citizens that were still there. Obviously, we're concerned about those water bodies, Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, as well as the Gulf.

The Corps of Engineers based upon our recommendations installed booms so that as the water was being pumped from the city into the lake or into the canals or in one case into the Mississippi River, to put a boom around where the water was being drawn from (1) to help so that the debris wouldn't go in but also (2) it serves as a physical barrier for those things floating like oil or gasoline. Likewise, for going back into the lake or canals, put a boom around where it was coming in again so that if there was material lighter than water and floating on the water, it would also be captured and easier to remediate. In addition, for some of the canals where we know that oxygen levels in the water, dissolved oxygen could be a problem, also we suggested that the Corps put aerators and there are aerators in a number of the canals to help with the dissolved oxygen issue that could be a problem.

So water quality, we have a number of efforts underway to ensure that we understand what the flood water, what steps needed to be taken, steps to bring up the drinking water system and waste water treatment system as well as to assess the environmental damage that may have been done to either the lake and/or the river and/or the Gulf.

The second major issue that I want to cover is land. There are a number of issues under the land area. First is debris. We do not have a good estimate of how much debris there is other than there is just an enormous amount of debris, an enormous amount, and I would not speculate on the amount. There's just an enormous amount.

The kind of debris that we are seeing ranges from tree limbs and trees to building material. In some cases in some of the areas in fact, there is a picture behind me that shows one of the EPA team standing on what looks like a pile of two by fours that once was some building structure. But we're finding a lot of things.

<debris audio clip begins>

We have recovered over 5,000 orphan containers, if you will, and those orphan containers range from gas cylinders to, there's a picture behind me, that shows a red medical waste disposal drum that we found floating. So what we are dealing with from a debris standpoint is a range from debris limbs to hazardous material.

So we've been working with each of the states. We do have in place now a hazardous materials preplan for Mississippi and for Alabama and focusing on those kinds of things as well as PCDs, asbestos, other things that may be present. We're working with Louisiana to put such a plan in place as well. We do have guidance out there with regard to building materials and other things, but debris, the enormity of the amount of material, is a challenge.

<debris audio clip ends >

So a multi-pronged approach in working with the states, the communities, to secure the debris. In some cases, it's certainly a volume problem. In other cases, it's going to be and is a hazardous materials problem. It needs to be dealt with. So debris and the clean-up of that debris, again we're on the scene. We're providing advice and counsel. We're managing those hazardous materials.

Another issue that we're very concerned about is the sediment. As the flood waters recede, there's sediment left and in your packet, you begin to see some of the pictures and behind me there's a picture to-date where some of the sediment is just as the picture looks. It is an oily sediment that is going to be a challenge to deal with in a number of ways.

But we've begun to sample the sediment. We don't have any results yet. But as soon as we get those results, we're going to be sharing with everybody. What our labs have reported to me is that they have had some difficulty in doing some of the analysis because the sediment samples like the ones behind me are so laden with petroleum products that it's hard to get those products out of the sediment so that they can then look for other chemicals or bacteria of potential concern. But they assured me that we have the capability and we are sorting through that. But nonetheless, we have begun taking sediment samples and as soon as we get those results, we'll be sharing it with everybody. But as you can see, clearly we have petroleum at least in those sites behind me that are a problem.

<sediment audio clip begins>

And we're going to continue to sample the sediments. Again, we asked our Science Advisory Board for their expert counsel and advice on our sediment sampling plan and I expect to get their comments this week. But we've gone ahead and started taking sediment samples, but have asked for their advice and counsel to make sure we're doing this in an appropriate and comprehensive way given the situation we have.

<sediment audio clip ends >

That's principally for Louisiana. We are working with Mississippi and Alabama to look at since there wasn't the standing water issue as New Orleans is facing, are there sediment sampling or soil sampling that we collectively feel is recommended? So we're currently working with Mississippi and Alabama to work our way through that.

Other land issues that we're facing. There's a chart behind me that shows the risk management plan and the superfund site facilities. As you can see from the number of facilities and RMP sites in this area where the hurricane hit 406 and superfund sites 31 sites, those are the facilities at the RMP level facility. There are many other smaller facilities. So we're now looking at what are the steps that we need to take to assure ourselves, to assure the public that these RMP sites or superfund sites have not been compromised.

We have visited the vast majority or many of the superfund sites. Let me talk about New Orleans for example. There are five superfund sites in New Orleans. We've done a preliminary review. I mean we've gone out and looked at the five. Well, let's say we've looked at four. One of them is still under water. The agricultural site is still under water. So we've not been able to really get into it to assess that.

The other sites we've looked at and it's a range of things. We've seen fences down. Our building's going back.  We have done any sample analysis ye, but again, whatever steps we need to take to assure ourselves and the public that the superfund sites or the RMP sites or others. There's PSD facilities. There's just a variety of facilities that we need to work our way through. Again, we're committed to do that to work through and better understand if there is or isn't a problem with regard to land.

The other land and obviously it's a water issue as well are oil and hazardous materials. The Agency to-date has received through the National Response Center 396 notifications. Now a notification could be as simple as somebody picking up the phone and calling and saying, "I smell a funny smell. Would you please investigate" to a more significant, not that that's not significant, but another type of phone call that "We see an oil spill and we want to report that."

What we have seen, we're obviously very actively not just investigating the calls. We're on the scene. We're out there looking and I'll tell you about some of the more things that we're doing including our ASPECT aircraft. But what we have been actively involved with in particular with the Coast Guard is that there have been five oil spills in the New Orleans area to-date, five oil spills. The most significant of the oil spills is a facility called Murphy Oil. The company as well as EPA and the Coast Guard again are on the scene, have stopped the leakage and the company is with our assistance remediating the problem. As I mentioned, there are a lot of hazardous materials and the volume, I've already given you some numbers on it.

<ASPECT audio clip begins>

Now I'd like to turn your attention to air. Again, we're concerned about the water. We're concerned about the land. We're also concerned about the air. We put up our aircraft which is the Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology also called ASPECT. And ASPECT was put up in the air on August 30th and has been doing a number of flights. The results of those flights, I believe, are posted on our internet today.

<ASPECT audio clip ends >

In a lot of cases, we haven't seen anything. The aircraft's capability is for screening levels. It can take pictures which it does. It has infrared technology capability. It has the ability to detect radiological releases. It also has the ability to detect a variety of chemicals again at a screening level in a three to five part per million range.

<air example audio clip begins>

What has happened where we've seen release or we've seen something, the aircraft contacts our ground folks and then to go in to investigate, to take whatever steps necessary to investigate. One recent example was our aircraft picked up a level of chloral acetic acid which is an industrial chemical if you will. And it was a concern to us. The aircraft radioed our on-ground teams. They went over. They pinpointed the location, found that it was a 55 gallon drum. It was opened and the team remediated that.

<air example audio clip ends >

We have dispatched two of our TAGA which stands for Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer buses to be able to do real time air sampling. And we will be gathering those results and again providing those as we get them.

There are a number of other air issues including as you know across the United States we have air monitors that are stationary to tell us whether our ozone levels are high or not or whether there's fine particulate matter. We need to assess what the conditions are -

(Taping stops.)

That we have another set of teams of individuals that are focusing their attention on. You are all well aware of the fuel labored issues. So I won't cover that but that was another air issue.

The last two items, the next to last is helping prevent disease. We're working very collaboratively with the Health and Human Services and CDC in particular, the state and local health and environmental agencies, on a myriad of issues ranging from vector control advice to other advice and counsel and it's a cooperative relationships and things are working well.

Lastly, I'll talk about communications. One of the lessons learned from post 9/11 among others was the importance of communications and getting information out and making sure that it's accurate but getting the information out. We've been trying to do that in a variety of forms whether it be through advisories, through live radio that I've done and Marcus Peacock, my deputy, has done, through TV and through newspapers, through our coordination mechanisms, the Joint Information Command, through interagency efforts, through a variety of things. I have another poster that gives a sense of the number of advisories that we have released and the number of announcements that we have and we'll continue to do that.

With that, let me just close by saying that again we at EPA have a great team of highly qualified individuals who are on the scene, who are here at Headquarters, who are here in Atlanta, who are in our Dallas office who are providing whatever support is necessary to make sure that this area is restored. And we are on the scene protecting the water and the land and the air. With that, I'll be happy to answer any questions.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Hold on just one second. I know at the top of this I promised we would reset the -- radio. I think since we ran long to take just the rest of the half hour for Q&A. Any radio that has a concern that needs him to reset with the statement?

PARTICIPANT: Okay. Can I ask a question please?

PARTICIPANT: I have a question, too.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Okay. That's fine. Do you want to start reporting now the Q&A and we'll do a statement at the end?

PARTICIPANT: Hello. Should I go ahead? Okay.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Hold on. We're going to start with one question in the room and then we're going to the phones. Please identify yourselves on the phone.

PARTICIPANT: Yes, I am --

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Hold on. We're going to start with the room.

PARTICIPANT: Hello. Can I ask him my question?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Hold on.

PARTICIPANT: John has asked about the source of lead and the flood waters. At this point, do you know what the source is?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: What we do know is that there's high levels of lead in the flood water and obviously that's a concern to us. But we don't know what the source is. We all speculate whether it's lead paint or lead from batteries. We don't know what the source is. We know we have a high level and that's of concern to us.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Phone line.

PARTICIPANT: Hello?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Can you hear us?

PARTICIPANT: Can I go ahead?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Please.

PARTICIPANT: Hello, we're sitting in for the French -- Mr. Johnson, I wonder if you could help me out here. How much oil products are spilled at the Murphy Oil site and secondly, what about --

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I'm sorry. Just one question per reporter. Your question is how much oil at the Murphy site.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: I don't have the total off the top of my head. I would be happy to get that for you and for the record. But I mean it was in the thousands of gallons rather than the millions of gallons of oil. But I would be happy to get that for the record.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: One for the room.

MR. BORENSTEIN: This is Seth Borenstein from -- Newspapers. You talk about the sediment being so tainted with petroleum products that you had a hard time testing. Could you give us a sense of how far that taint is geographically and how deep the taint is chemically and I noticed that most of the early flood water testing was also nowhere near any of the refineries and that's why we probably didn't see any benzine or any of the oil products. Was that an oversight or what?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Let me comment on the flood waters. Initially, when we started doing the flood water sampling, we were not looking for petroleum product. We could actually see them on top of the water. So we weren't analyzing for them.

As we began, and I'm not sure whether it was two days or three days, but as we thought about and certainly as we got peer review from our Science Advisory Board, we said we probably ought to make that part of our standard and look even though we can see some of the petroleum products floating on the water. So we revised our testing.

With regard to the sediment, you can look at the map that we've included and what our sediment sampling plan is. You can see in the pink on the map is where the flood water has been and you can see where we have taken sediment samples, where we are going to take sediment samples and they are obviously in a variety of locations, in some cases, near industrial sites, in some cases near superfund sites. Again, our focus was where are the residents, where is the high population, to make sure that we cover that area in particular.

PARTICIPANT: Administrator Johnson.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Yes.

PARTICIPANT: You mentioned --

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Could you identify yourself please?

PARTICIPANT: I'm sorry. Ma'am, this is -- from U.S. News and World Report. You had mentioned briefly Mississippi. You said there weren't flood waters like in New Orleans. Of course, land would be a problem there, I'm assuming. How many superfund sites are there in Mississippi? Have you looked at those? Is that the major problem in Mississippi? What is the major environmental problem in Mississippi?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: We're still assessing. I don't have the total number of -- How many superfund sites? Four? There are four in Mississippi I am reminded that look like may have been impacted there. Again, there are a number of superfund sites in that area but four that would have appeared in the flood's path. At this point, what's probably the major issue there is the debris management and again we're encountering a variety of hazardous material.

PARTICIPANT: What kind?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I'm sorry. We don't have time -

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: It's just a variety of hazardous materials. Again, Mississippi just like Louisiana in particular, we also have drinking water systems that are not operating. We also have waste water treatment systems that are not operating. So all of those issues are of concern to us and we have a multi-pronged approach to try to address all of those.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Anyone from the room?

PARTICIPANT: Hi, I'm -- from Nature. You mentioned several plans and several of your Science Advisory Boards. Can you clarify? Is this all one board and who is on it and is it all one plan and when will we see it?

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: The SAB is on the website.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Yes. The SAB, we called on experts in water. So there are water experts. We called on SAB air experts. We called on SAB sediment experts. So they're not the same people necessarily and as soon as we get their comments and plans put in place, we certainly will be sharing them with everybody.

PARTICIPANT: Mr. Johnson.

MR. BROWN: I have a question on the phone.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Go ahead.

MR. BROWN: This is David Brown from TheWashington Post. Can you tell me, Mr. Johnson, how the water results compare to results from other high water events, rain events in the past? In other words, is this very historically very different now from past storms and floods?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Well, it's my understanding that the two that make this unique are the high bacterial counts and the fact that we're also seeing high levels of lead. But again, these are among our preliminary results. We're doing and continue to do a lot of flood water analysis. So again, it's too difficult to speculate on what it may look like in the end.

MS. BARINGER: Yes. Felicity Baringer from The New York Times. Yesterday Major Nagin in New Orleans said that he was receiving a report from you and gave a very upbeat account of the likelihood of being able to get people and businesses back in the central business district and the French Quarter and some of the areas that had remained dry. Give to me a sense of in terms of your recommendations to local officials what kinds of readings are you looking to get down to on E. coli, hazmat, lead and some of the other category of pollutants before you declare a neighborhood or a city or any part of the hurricane-effected area safe for human habitation.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: A very important question and first, all of us across all the Federal agencies, EPA included, want New Orleans to return to be the thriving city it was before the hurricane. Our top priority is to assess what the impacts are and to conduct a clean-up operation just as quickly as possible that's done right and proactive for public health.

Restoring this community is not just in EPA. It really is a collaborative effort and it's a collaborative effort among our Federal agencies whether the Federal agencies be helping with services, CDC in particular, whether it be Federal agencies such as HUD, others. And the states have a key role to play in both the assessment as well as providing recommendations to the local, in this case, mayor, both the state departments of health as well as the state departments of environmental quality.

This is not city only or a Federal only. It really is a collaborative effort and has to be that way. So we are partnering with our Federal and our state partners to provide advice and counsel. At this point as you can see from the briefing that I've just gone through, we have many questions. We also have many concerns.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: A question on the phone.

MS. HOGUE: This is Cheryl Hogue with Chemical and Engineering News. Mr. Johnson, I'm wondering if EPA has the money to do all the things that it has and whether you'll be asking Congress for some more money.

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: At this point through FEMA, we have received in excess of $100 million. Part of that money has been moved through us to the Coast Guard to assist in oil spills and some of the activities that both of us jointly participate in. At this point, we have sufficient funds.

But again, as I said, we're in the early days of assessment and we don't know what that assessment will show. Certainly I have instructed our staff if there are any resource issues to make those known to me immediately. But now, we have sufficient resources to do what we are doing.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Can everyone please mute your phone? We're going to go to the room real quick. Please mute your phone and then we'll come back to the phone. Elizabeth

ELIZABETH: Yes. I have a question about the sediment because there's a lot of hydrocarbons in a lot of petroleum products. Does it pose a risk to those people as they come or to the rescue workers? Is that a toxic product and what do you do about that?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: We are just now beginning to characterize what's in the sediment. Clearly from the pictures, they are petroleum-based products. We don't know what else in the petroleum-based products or what's the nature of the petroleum-based product. It's very difficult to advise. Again given what we see, we certainly would advise a great deal of caution and taking prudent caution of changing clothes and doing things like that. But until we know what we're dealing with it's really difficult to advise very specifically.

Again what we did in the water is we know there's high levels of bacteria. We know there's a high levels of lead. We're seeing a mixture of other kinds of chemicals. The water is unsafe. Flood waters are unsafe.  So you need to avoid as much as possible exposure to it.

JIM: Jim -- from The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Johnson, how long do you think it will take to do all the sampling and testing needed to determine for sure the environmental threats and will the same kind of test be conducted in residential areas as well as industrial?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: I don't know the answer. And the reason I don't know the answer is there are a number of issues that we're doing real time. Again, this is a snapshot. The flood waters are receding. That's good news. So as long as the flood waters are there, we're going to continue sampling the water.

The sediment, we'll be doing sediment samples and again, some of the areas we can't get into sediment until the flood waters are gone. So we're going to do the sediment. We need, again, to sort through what needs to be done for these superfund sites, what additional analysis do we need to do to assure ourselves that those superfund sites or the areas have not been breached.

So there are many of those kinds of questions that we don't know the answer to and we're in the early days of going around and visually inspecting and then beginning to do more detailed analysis like we are for flood waters and sediment.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: Room.

MR. CORSON: Paul Corson with CNN Radio. We're recording in Atlanta right now so if folks could mute for just a second. Mr. Johnson, the chemical corridor known as Cancer Alley, is it possible that there are tanks and pipelines leaking right now that you don't know about and creating a hazard?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: We're not aware. We're doing everything we can to try and assess that situation as I said through some of our technology, the ASPECT aircraft where we can actually use infrared technology to look at tanks or other kinds of technology that we can use and we're deploying those to see. We're certainly not aware of those.

Again, there are a number of chemical facilities in this area as one of the charts indicates and we know that the individual owners of those, the company, are going in to do their own assessments. So we're all working very cooperatively to try to do an assessment. If we knew there was a problem, we would be there to try to stop it and mitigate it as quickly as possible.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: One more question.

(Several speak at once.)

PARTICIPANT: Administrator Johnson, can you please give us any sense of what sort of a timeline we'd be looking at for the actual environmental remediation efforts that could be going on after the sampling is all done? Are we looking at maybe five years, ten years, that all of this work would take to be done?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: I wish I could speculate on what it's going to take. Again, what we're focused on now is assessing what the impacts are. Until we have a better handle on what's the magnitude, the extent, of the problem, again whether it's sediment, whether it's water, whether it's debris issues or whether it's air issues, it really is impossible to speculate on what it's going to take and what time it's going to take.

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: I think just hold on. We're going to go ahead and give a statement for radio. Do you want to just read that?

<wrap-up audio clip begins>

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Again, thank you for joining me this afternoon. I just want to assure the public that EPA is on the scene. We prepositioned people before the storm. We're on the scene now. We're doing everything that we can do to ensure that the water, the land and the air is restored.

That's our focus and we have multiple efforts to help ensure that that's the case from cleaning up the water, doing flood water sampling, providing advice and counsel, dealing with debris, dealing with hazardous materials, dealing with potential air issues. We're on the scene making sure again working collaboratively with the state and federal partners to make sure that the land, the water and the air is restored.

<wrap-up audio clip ends >

PRESS SECRETARY WITCHER: -- tape this for a minute while we go out to the -

PARTICIPANT: Could you restate what you said about drinking water in the original thing because I don't have that on the recording?

EPA ADMINISTRATOR JOHNSON: Sure. There are literally hundreds of community drinking water systems throughout the affected hurricane area. In some cases, they are not operating because they don't have electricity. In other cases, there is more --

(Taping ends.)

(Administrator hung line up and no sound coming through.)

PARTICIPANT: Why didn't they mention that they were hanging up?

PARTICIPANT: They were doing the TV stuff. So maybe there was too much noise.

PARTICIPANT: I thought they went to radio next.

PARTICIPANT: Well, they had somebody recording some TV I thought.

PARTICIPANT: Okay.

PARTICIPANT: She interrupted and said they won't go to radio because they'd gone over their time limit. And they were recording a couple of things for radio and TV and that's when it cut off.

PARTICIPANT: -- terrible because we had people typing and talking.

PARTICIPANT: I know. They hang -- It was terrible.

PARTICIPANT: It's not broadcast quality.

PARTICIPANT: Right. Well, none of us got our questions answered either.

PARTICIPANT: No.

PARTICIPANT: That's it.

PARTICIPANT: You folks have a great day.

PARTICIPANT: You too.

PARTICIPANT: Bye.

PARTICIPANT: Bye.

(End of tape.)




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Recent additions

09/16/2005Deputy Administrator Peacock Briefs Reporters on EPA Efforts in Gulf Coast: Transcript of Sept. 16 Press Conference (speakers: Marcus Peacock (Deputy Administrator - EPA)
- Dr. William Farland (EPA)
- Secretary Mike McDaniel (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (via telephone)))
09/14/2005EPA Administrator Briefs Reporters on EPA Efforts in Gulf Coast:
Transcript of Sept. 14 Press Roundtable (speakers: EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson)
09/21/2005Federal, State Officials to Brief Reporters on Debris Management in Gulf Coast Area Briefing Transcript (speakers: Kevin Jasper (Army Corps of Engineers)
- Lieutenant Commander Claudia Gelzer (U.S. Coast Guard)
- Deputy Regional Administrator Stan Meiburg (EPA)
- Ruth McCulley (Director of Science - Technology and Medicine - Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
- Dave Tenny (Deputy Under Secretary of Natural Resources on the Environment - USDA)
- Dave Gagner (Chief of Staff - Natural Resources Conservation Service)
- Charles Chisholm (Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality)
- Phil Bass (Director of the Office of Pollution Control - Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality ))
10/21/2005Federal and State Agencies Give Update on Hurricane Katrina Related Water Monitoring in the Gulf Transcript (speakers: Ben Grumbles (Assistant Administrator - Office of Water - EPA)
- Steve Murawski
- Donald Kraemer
- Chris Piehler
- Phil Bass (Director of the Office of Pollution Control - Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality ))
11/10/2005EPA, ATSDR & LDEQ Discuss Recent Environmental Sampling Results from Hurricanes Katrina/Rita (speakers: Administrator Stephen Johnson (EPA)
- Dr. Howard Frumkin (ATSDR)
- Chris Rovery
- Dwight Bradshaw (LDEQ))