Flying Lab Searches Katrina Disaster Area For Airborne Chemicals

The flying lab can notify rescuers on the ground if shifting winds are blowing a toxic plume their way.
With national attention focused on victims and rescuers along the Gulf Coast, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Environmental Protection Agency have been working behind the scenes to provide information and expertise with some high-tech tools.

Using Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT), the lab and the EPA have been searching for hundreds of airborne chemicals in the days since Hurricane Katrina struck. The information is relayed to scientists at Los Alamos. The team can notify rescuers if shifting winds are blowing a toxic plume their way.

"If something looks suspicious, we can see what's in the plume without putting a ground responder in harms way," lab spokesman Nancy Ambrosiano said in an interview Thursday. "It's kind of unique for us to be able to deploy into the field and provide an immediate, homeland security response. It is a little bit different for us, and it certainly makes people feel good."

ASPECT has been deployed 49 times, but nothing compares to the devastation of Katrina.

The EPA's flying lab, aboard an Aero Commander 680 twin-engine plane, has been flying over the Gulf Coast, searching for explosions, leaks and fires.

The airborne lab operates with a crew consisting of a pilot, a co-pilot and a system operator. It is equipped with three sensors that can detect hundreds of chemicals and several radiological materials.

A Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer can peer through smoke to detect the energy, or infrared light, emitted by chemical vapors in the air. It can measure and located the concentration of the vapor plume. A high resolution Infrared Line Scanner records an image of the ground and information about the plume hovering above it.

High-resolution digital photography and video are combined with a Global Positioning System and navigation data to map the plume. The direction of wind is plotted, and overlays show where toxic air may build up. The information is relayed to first responders and incident commanders.

Bob Kroutil, a Los Alamos research chemist, said his team of eight to 10 scientists has been working from 5 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily. He said he and his team members are dedicated to providing rescuers with information they need to make informed decisions.

"The area is so wide, so huge an area that's under water," he said. "It comes with all kinds of potential problems. Obviously, the loss of life is tremendous down there. We also did a large evacuation during the California wildfires in 2003 and that was a very large area. That would be the closest situation."

The EPA has been posting information on the air surveillance since the hurricane struck. A chemical fire Friday in New Orleans released a large, visible plume, but only low levels of ethylene, methanol, chlorinated methane (Freon 22), and possibly isoprene were detected. The EPA reported that the levels were very low, and the chemicals did not appear to move downwind of the fire.

The next day, the flying lab surveyed smoke form a large fire in the city's warehouse district and reported finding no contaminants of "undue concern" in the smoke.

Sunday, the aircraft was assessing spills and chemical releases, including a large inland oil spill from a nearby 250,000-barrel Murphy Oil Co. storage tank failure. The next day, the EPA reported that 85,000 barrels of oil were released beyond a secondary containment site, extending into a residential area. The U.S. Coast Guard is responding to the leaks, according to government reports.

The flying lab's work will continue indefinitely. Kroutil said it will operate until recovery coordinators tell them to cease.

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