Another Need in the Aftermath of Sandy: Toxic Soup Testing

In Hurricane Sandy's aftermath, government agencies have acted quickly to save lives and restore power and other basic essentials for those impacted by the storm. As recovery continues, federal and state agencies will be addressing another growing problem: the noxious materials such as oil, toxic chemicals, and raw sewage that the storm has released into waterways. The health of residents and first responders will depend on knowing what's around them so they can take proper precautions and mitigate risks.

Hurricane Damage

Hurricane Sandy smashed and flooded entire communities across several mid-Atlantic and Northeast states, with particularly severe damage to the coastline of New Jersey and New York. The impacted region is a heavily populated and industrialized one. At least 113 people were killed in the United States and more than eight million homes and businesses lost power. The estimated costs for recovery have ranged as high as $60 billion so far. The storm also spilled dangerous materials into various bodies of water, potentially threatening the health of residents already dealing with the more direct damages from the disaster.

Hurricane Sandy TRI map
click to view interactive map

New Jersey is a center of chemical manufacturing in the U.S., and the eight New Jersey counties hardest hit by the storm contained 178 facilities that generated enough toxic waste each year to have to report to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program. These facilities reported over one hundred million (106,897,503) pounds of toxic waste in 2010. New York contains 36 facilities in the Bronx, Queens, and Westchester County, and they reported another 867,865 pounds of toxic waste released in 2010. These facilities include paint and coating companies, iron and steel mills, petroleum refineries, chemical product companies, and metal container companies, to name a few.

Oil Spills

Six large oil refineries were located in the hurricane's path, according to Reuters reports. Together, these refineries process about 1.19 million barrels of oil per day, or around seven percent of the total U.S. capacity. The six refineries shut down during the storm, and two of the six were not operating two days later. The biggest refinery in the area, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, was running at a minimum level (not at its full 330,000 barrels per day capacity).

New Jersey has identified at least one major petroleum spill so far. Over 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the waterway separating New Jersey and Staten Island, NY. The spill occurred after a tank ruptured at a storage facility, owned by Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture of Shell and Saudi Refining Inc. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the spill included diesel, bio-diesel, and slop oil.

Prior hurricanes, such as Katrina and Rita in 2005, provide us with some sense of what can happen when an oil spill occurs during a hurricane. Both Katrina and Rita caused a total of 17,652 barrels (or roughly three-quarters of a million gallons) of petroleum products (including 13,137 barrels of crude oil and condensate and 4,514 barrels of refined petroleum products) to spill from platforms, rigs, and pipelines. About 7,300 of those barrels of crude oil and condensate spilled directly into the Gulf of Mexico.

While initial reports indicate that oil spills have been limited in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the totals could rise.

Sewage and Chemicals

Raw sewage and other pollutants, including industrial chemicals, poured into New York City waterways as a result of the extensive flooding. Five of New York City's 14 wastewater treatment plants were located within the mandatory evacuation zone. Many of the plants filled to capacity or flooded, which dumped a mix of sewage and storm water directly into rivers, flooded streets, and buildings. The New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene advised residents to avoid "direct contact" with several waterways, including the Hudson River, East River, New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Kill Van Kull.

The storm caused "widespread pollution of the Hudson River and New York Harbor by a variety of toxic chemicals, including petroleum and fluids from cars and boats; contaminants from flooded subways, roads, parking lots and tunnels; and contaminants washed from shoreline industrial sites, as well as commercial and residential buildings," said Riverkeeper, a New York-based clean water advocacy group. "Oil sheens and debris have been observed – everything from 55-gallon drums and quart-sized containers of transmission fluid, to wrecked boats and swamped vehicles with leaking fuel tanks," the group noted.

Government officials have told residents to stay away from potentially toxic sites, such as the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn and the Newtown Creek Superfund site (a waterway that separates Brooklyn and Queens). Superfund is the federal government's toxic waste clean-up program. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the 1.8-mile Gowanus location as a clean-up site because of industrial pollution and sewage discharges. A city councilmember for Gowanus, Brooklyn sent an e-mail to constituents about the dangers of coming into contact with any water or debris that flooded from the canal, but many neighborhood residents do not have Internet service as a result of the storm. A more systematic warning to residents may be needed.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn (a few blocks from the Newtown Creek Superfund site) is already considered one of New York City's most polluted neighborhoods, with several industrial facilities including metal working and pencil manufacturing. In the aftermath of the storm, residents have complained that industrial waste from these facilities has flooded into basements. "Toxic chemicals are a long-term concern," acknowledged Brian Coleman, who runs the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, one of the local industrial sites that flooded.

Nuclear Plants

Of the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors in the United States, thirty-four were in the storm's path, including the Indian Point 3 plant along the banks of the Hudson River 25 miles north of New York City. Twenty-four active reactors "survived the storm without any incident," according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Seven reactors had been closed for maintenance prior to the storm, and three were shut down completely in anticipation of the storm.

Prior natural disasters, such as Hurricane Irene and the tsunami that debilitated Japan's Fukushima-based nuclear reactor in 2011, have led to calls for increased nuclear safety requirements. Critiques contend that nuclear reactors are not fully equipped to handle increasingly severe storms. Oyster Creek, which is America's oldest nuclear facility and located in New Jersey, was closed for maintenance before the storm. If the plant had been generating power, and the flood waters had risen six inches higher, the storm could have knocked out the pumps and triggered a disaster, according to Arnold Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education Corp., a nonprofit educational foundation that promotes public understanding of nuclear power and safety related issues.


As the weather becomes increasingly volatile, both federal and state agencies are going to need to plan for emergencies of this magnitude and for the public health and safety issues that will follow in the wake of such natural disasters. This will involve environmental testing, cleanup, health monitoring, and citizen education, as well as rebuilding. The New York State Department of Environmental Protection stated in an Oct. 31 press release that water quality will be monitored as cleanup goes forward. Here's what we assume we will seeing in the coming days and weeks:

  • Environmental Testing: We anticipate that agencies will be conducting comprehensive environmental testing to determine the nature and extent of environmental health hazards. Testing will need to include air, water, and soil sampling and should be designed to track down toxic hot-spots, such as Superfund sites. Government officials should involve citizens and community experts in the process; timely testing may require the use of independent experts.

  • Cleanup: We assume agencies will be working to oversee and assist in cleaning up all the identified sites of toxic and hazardous contamination. (See map above.) We assume Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I-New York City) will be working with the companies whose materials contributed to storm-related chemical releases, asking them to help with cleanup and requesting financial assistance in this effort. Residents and workers should not be allowed to return to contaminated sites until the sites have been inspected and their safety is assured.

  • Educating Citizens: Local officials should be communicating known health hazards to recovery workers and returning residents through all available means. Health warnings, symptoms to watch for, and steps to take should be disseminated broadly via print and broadcast media. Protective equipment, with instructions on appropriate usage, should also be made available to first responders, clean-up crews, and any residents involved in debris removal and rebuilding.

  • Health Monitoring: We anticipate that public health agencies will be tracking the health effects of exposure on recovery workers and returning residents at regular intervals over time. The data collected should be publicly available and released in regular intervals (every six months or so). Individuals and communities should have access to their own health monitoring results.

  • Rebuilding: Residents and community leaders should be encouraged to participate in decisions about how to rebuild damaged communities to mitigate future disasters. As these conversations occur, we expect public officials to fully enforce all environmental, workplace, and health standards as rebuilding plans move forward. We recognize that this is sometimes difficult, as hard-pressed residents want their lives to return to normal as quickly as possible. However, without these protections, more short- and long-term health problems can be expected in the future.
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