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Midwest Floodwaters Tainted With Sewage, Chemicals

DES MOINES, Iowa, June 17, 2008 (ENS) – Raw sewage is flowing into rivers and streams across central and eastern Iowa as one after another wastewater facilities are inundated by the record floods that have swept the state during the past two weeks.

Livestock manure is also part of the nasty mix, along with spilled fuel and chemicals, all heading to the flooding Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning people to avoid contact with floodwater that may be contaminated with sewage or hazardous substances because exposure to the waste could transmit intestinal illnesses and skin infections.

Do not wade, swim, or enter floodwaters and immediately wash hands and bare skin that comes in contact with floodwater with soap and hot water, health officials warn.

It could be weeks before hundreds of damaged sewage treatment plants are operating again, say officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.


Flooded road north of Vinton, Iowa
(Photo courtesy Iowa DOT)

In southeast Iowa, sewage plants at Keosauqua and Bonaparte are flooded, and Ottumwa is allowing some wastes to flow into streams, DNR officials said. Officials in Burlington shut down the city’s sewage treatment plant and all Burlington sewage is now entering the Mississippi River.

The rising Mississippi burst its banks Tuesday morning, breaking a levee near the village of Gulfport and forcing the closure of the Great River Bridge that connects Gulfport to Burlington, Iowa via U.S. Highway 34.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is planning for expected flooding in Illinois and Missouri later this week, with water and generators being pre-positioned as flood waters flow down the Mississippi River. Peak cresting along the Mississippi is expected on Thursday.

Right now, major flooding is occurring or forecast over most of Iowa, closing highways, washing out road and rail bridges, and snarling rail traffic across much of the Midwest.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been asked by FEMA to coordinate hazardous material and oil-related response in flooded areas throughout Iowa.

The EPA will retrieve orphaned hazardous containers and drums, such as fuel and propane tanks, respond to chemical and oil releases, collect and dispose of flood-damaged household hazardous waste, and conduct monitoring and sampling of air and water. To report orphaned hazardous containers or chemical/oil releases, citizens should call the EPA Region 7 24-hour Response Line at (913) 281-0991.

President George W. Bush is scheduled to tour the flooded areas on Thursday. Speaking to reporters today, the president said he wants to ensure that Congress appropriates enough money to cover this emergency and any others that might arise before the end of the year. The Atlantic hurricane season is just two weeks old, and will not end until November 30.


Floodwaters overtake the Iowa town of Columbus
Junction (Photo courtesy Iowa DOT)

For all the thousands of people who have lost their homes to the flooding, the president said he asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to set up a housing task force to assist them.

“I fully understand people are upset when they lose their home,” said President Bush. “A person’s home is their most valued possession. And we want to work with state and local folks to have a clear strategy to help people find – get back into a place that – where they can live.”

“I, unfortunately, have been to too many disasters as President. But one thing I’ve always learned is that the American citizen can overcome these disasters,” said Bush. “And life, while it may seem dim at this point in time, can always be better because of the resiliency and care of our citizens.”

Speaking to reporters on his plane today, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Illinois Senator Barack Obama said, “Thank goodness that we didn’t see significant casualties, but in terms of the economic losses in that state and the prospects of rebuilding, it is mind boggling. You’ve got the second largest city in Iowa that is gonna be under water for at least another four, five days. You have three million acres of corn that are effectively destroyed, losses are going to be in the tens of billions of dollars potentially and, we’re not done.”

“We’re gonna be seeing problems spill over as the Mississippi rises, it’s about to crest,” Obama said. “I was in Quincy, I think you joined me this weekend, to fill some sand bags and get an assessment of what’s going on there. Burlington along the Mississippi River, some of the river towns in Missouri are all gonna be impacted by this, and so I just wanted to assure [Iowa] Governor [Chet] Culver that we’re gonna do everything we can to get aid there rapidly.”

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Arizona Senator John McCain said only, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by the flooding throughout the Midwest. Cindy and I would like to extend our sympathies to all those who have lost loved ones, and stand ready to help those in the Midwest to recover and rebuild.”

During the past two weeks over 10 inches of rain have fallen in the vicinity of Des Moines, Iowa, and over large areas of northeastern Iowa, southern Wisconsin and west central Lower Michigan, eight inches more than normal, according to the National Weather Service.

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