The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Environmental hazard?

Experts debate existence of health issues for environment after Columbia tragedy

Whether there will be a negative impact to the environment from the Columbia tragedy remains to be seen. SMU professors and environmental specialists speculate that any damage to the environment will be minor, but NASA officials and the government refuse to rule out the possibility.

Al Armendariz of SMU’s environmental engineering program said there were two main types of contaminants to watch for.

“First, there is the physical debris,” Armendariz said. “Insulation from the craft may create a problem because of the particles that it could emit into the atmosphere, for example. This could cause respiratory ailments in local residents. There could be asbestos or some other fibrous material present that is a problem.”

The second and greatest risk is the chemical threat.

Dave Berry of the Environmental Protection Agency said that the main concern NASA has is for the presence of monomethyl hydrozine and nitrogen tetroxide. These two highly toxic chemicals are used as fuel sources for the shuttlecraft.

“Monomethyl hydrozine is a clear fluid with a strong, fishy smell,” Berry

said. “Nitrogen tetroxide is a green fluid that turns into a brownish vapor and has a smell like a strong concentration of bleach. If people find debris on their property that has these chemicals present, they should stay away from them and call someone with NASA, Federal Emergency Management Agency or local law enforcement immediately.”

Some of these same chemicals may be found in debris that fell into the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Berry says that samples of the water from the reservoir have been sent to Colorado for study. Test results are not expected back for a week.

Berry says that FEMA, the EPA and NASA are not yet certain that there is no threat to drinking water or other aspects of the environment, but they do not believe there is a problem. Berry and Mike Miner of the Texas lieutenant governor’s office were unaware if individuals had filed reports for anything but picking up sharp pieces.

“The FBI and other government agencies are taking the most painstaking measures to locate and isolate all of the debris. Right now, wreckage extends from California to Louisiana and upwards into Oklahoma,” Miner said. “It is still premature to speculate on any long-term environmental impact since all the data is still not in, but every precaution is being taken.”

Cynthia O’ Carroll of NASA said that answers to the questions regarding possible chemical threats were not available at this time.

Armendariz said that the possibility of an environmental or health threat depends on the concentration of the toxins. They could have burned up in the atmosphere or been distributed in the upper atmosphere at such a high altitude that there might not be any effects from the chemicals at all.

“If we do see any damage, it will be in small pockets of areas where the

large pieces fell,” Armendariz said. “In those cases, people with protective gear will remove the source of the pollution. The main thing to watch out for are pieces of the tanks, engines or hoses that may contain a quantity of chemicals.”

Armendariz said the environment is very resilient and often recovers from damage caused from dumping as long as it is a small quantity.

“We’re very fortunate that the majority of the debris fell in Texas,”

Armendariz said.

He said that due to the state’s extensive experience in dealing with chemicals and toxins from the petroleum industry, Texas is better equipped to deal with a chemical problem of this nature than any other state in the union.

“One of the benefits following the terrorists’ threats that we have experienced in this state, if there can be a benefit, is that local and state law enforcement agencies, fire departments and the medical profession have been through much more extensive training for this type of problem than ever before.”

Charles Keitler of LBG-Guyton Associates in Austin is a specialist in ground water and environmental engineering.

“Most of the people in Texas receive their water from ground wells,” Keitler said. “These wells are quite deep and remote so they would be pretty hard to contaminate with something of this nature. The main hazard would be to soil or surface water like the Edwards Aquifer.”

Keitler said that the soil in the east Texas area is sandstone and limestone based. This type of rock is very porous, like a sponge. The chemicals would seep into the ground and remain there. Since they are not very water-soluble, there is little to no chance of contamination filtering through the soil into the water tables. These patches of contaminated soil would probably be scraped clear by a bulldozer then taken to a special waste disposal site.

“People who locate this debris and phone it in are doing a great public

service for the community,” Miner said. “We’re very proud of the way

everyone has pitched in with NASA and their local government agencies on this. The tragedy has affected a lot of people and the hearts of a lot of people.”

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