WTC air quality stirs angst

Environmental experts and residents alike are wrestling over toxic dust problems that have plagued New York City.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | July 28, 2004



"My kids go to school in Brooklyn, and on Sept. 11, it was definitely snowing WTC debris there."

—Cathy McVay Hughes


Environmental experts and residents alike wrestled Monday - sometimes with fervor - over toxic dust problems that have plagued New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.

The two most controversial issues on the table at the fifth meeting of the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel: proposed further testing for World Trade Center (WTC) dust around the city, and plans to demolish a building heavily damaged during the terrorist attacks.

The panel, formed in March, is charged with reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) response to the WTC attack. The EPA has been receiving heavy criticism since a report by the agency's independent inspector general said the EPA did not have enough evidence to declare the air in lower Manhattan safe to breathe one week after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Since Sept. 11, thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses in rescue workers, residents, and employees in New York City have been reported. Many have criticized the EPA's residence and business cleaning measures after Sept. 11, saying they were inadequate due to the toxins contained in the WTC dust.

During past meetings, the WTC expert panel made plans for retesting areas around Manhattan to determine if contaminants were still present. Monday's meeting had the panel reviewing a WTC dust "signature" and the further testing plans, with hopes of determining the geographic extent of WTC dust residues in buildings around the city.

"Studies (done on WTC air contaminants) agree on the overall composition of dust, so for bulk dust, we know what the signature is," said Greg Meeker, panel member and research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. "We're looking to see how that signature changes with distance, elevation, indoor versus outdoor samples, and more."

Several panel and audience members expressed concern over the area that's currently proposed for more air testing. Test areas - both past and proposed future ones - have been determined largely from viewing satellite and aerial photos of smoke visible after the attack. As a result, past and future tests focus only on limited areas of Manhattan.

"Why doesn't this (proposed test area) include Brooklyn?" asked Morton Lippman, panel member and professor of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. Several other panel members agreed, as did numerous audience members.

"My kids go to school in Brooklyn, and on Sept. 11, it was definitely snowing WTC debris there," said Cathy McVay Hughes, panel member and Manhattan resident.

During the public comment period, several audience members questioned the testing area's size, saying the process for determining the area was flawed.

"Just looking at satellite pictures of smoke is not enough - that doesn't include the kinds of dust particles and other things that aren't visible," said one audience member. "The EPA's excuse of using only satellite and airplane photos is crazy - no photos of Brooklyn were even taken."

The proposed new testing plan developed by the panel was also questioned because of its plan to test only those buildings whose owners and tenants volunteered.

"At issue for me is the voluntary participation in this - there is a great potential for skewed results due to this," said David Newman, panel member and industrial hygienist for the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). "Who gets to volunteer? What if workers want the tests done, but the business owners don't? What if residents want the tests done, but the landlords don't?"

Some panel members replied that they hoped that they'd get a large enough list of volunteers so that random testing could be done without resulting in a biased study. Others thought more incentives to those whose apartments and offices get tested could help.

"I think we'd get a lot of access if we guaranteed that a follow-up cleaning would happen if something was found," said David Prezant, panel member and deputy chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department. Prezant thought mandating tests in federal buildings could be one definite way of gaining access to some buildings.

Still, others expressed concern over the test protocols. The current plan is to check building HVAC ducts and do "passive" air testing. While some thought the air sampling should be aggressive, other panelists defended the original plan. "I would shy away from aggressive testing, I think fewer people would volunteer," said panelist Dr. Paul Lioy, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Hughes agreed. "I wouldn't volunteer for that," she said. "I wouldn't want to have to be out of my apartment for an entire day while they did that."

The proposed testing would also leave out tests for lead and dioxin. "Dioxin is costly to test for and also, there wasn't much found previously," said Matt Lorber of the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA). Lorber and the NCEA helped develop the proposed testing plan. "This decision isn't set in stone yet, we will test for lead if asked. But at this point we're suggesting leaving those out."

Manhattan residents have taken very active roles throughout the move for more contaminant testing in their homes and businesses. The WTC expert panel includes one resident, Cathy McVay Hughes, who has been busy getting other residents educated on the issues and giving them the forums to voice their questions and concerns.

Hughes gave a brief presentation on community participation work, saying that the EPA had granted them some funding for technical consultants to the community, more outreach activities, and a facilitator for their community-based participatory research. Hughes said the primary categories of concern for her community include remaining contamination, continuing health concerns, public education, and exposures related to on-going demolition and construction in the area. She said there's also a concern that all the medical screenings of those exposed to the contamination have only been for rescue workers and rescue volunteers, and not for local residents or employees.

"There's also not enough funding for the treatment of those that are screened," said Hughes. "The recent funding (from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) helps, but it only covers five years. Who knows what the long-term effects of all this will be?" The United Church of Christ's National Disaster Ministries has also provided funding for worker screenings.

Panelists lauded the public's help so far in raising important issues to them. "These communities show not just a level of concern, but a level of expertise that we should recognize," said David Newman of NYCOSH.

During the public comment section, audience members voiced their opinions on a number of issues. Some are concerned about the panel's plan to not test for lead and dioxin, saying that kids are particularly at risk for lead poisoning. Other lambasted the EPA and the Bush Administration, calling their actions in the wake of 9/11 appalling and criminal.

Robert Gulack, union steward for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, accused the EPA of trying to thwart the expert panel's work since its inception five months ago. "For the last five months, the EPA has wasted everyone's time, forcing this panel to tread water while more and more innocent children have suffered permanent lung damage,' he said. 'The history of the EPA's interaction with this panel can only be interpreted in the context of the previous two and half years in which the EPA first lied about the data, and then brushed off the report of its own inspector general."

Indira Singh, another audience member, followed Gulack's train of thought. 'When the government lies about contamination, it allows others with financial incentives to lie about it, like landlords and insurance companies," Singh said. Singh is a resident of Manhattan who said she'd been suffering from health issues from the contamination in her apartment. She said her landlord denied any dust problems for months, pointing to the EPA's statement that everything was fine. Singh later hired her own environmental scientist to test her residence just this summer.

"He said the original 9/11 dust is still present in my apartment," said Singh.

The public comment period also delved into the recent headline-grabbing story of the demolition of the Deutsche Bank building next to Ground Zero. The building was severely damaged when the WTC towers collapsed, and has remained vacant ever since. Recently the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced it was purchasing the structure and would demolish it. That prompted outcry from local residents and businesses concerned that remaining contaminants would be blown around the area again when the building is taken down.

Mary Perilo spoke on behalf of her building's residents, detailing their long battle of getting their residences clean after Sept. 11. Their building, 125 Cedar Street, is located right next to the Deutsche Bank building.

After Sept. 11, Perilo said the residents of her building were all excluded from their homes for a minimum of 16 months because the dwelling was considered contaminated and unsafe. She said many residents now suffer from respiratory ailments and psychological problems. Perilo said they don't want to deal with the excessive contamination and drawn-out cleanup again should the Deutsche Bank building be brought down.

Perilo said she and other residents have had their requests for demolition details repeatedly ignored by the LMDC and Deutsche Bank, adding that neither corporation is being open about the plans for the building, how local residents and workers will be protected during demolition, and about further contaminant testing done in the structure.

"We are less then 110 feet from the (Deutsche Bank) building, and there are many other residential buildings in the area," she said, showing photos of the proximity of the two buildings. "We want the panel to be our advocates in this process. I know (the panel) has a lot of work to do, but we don't have anywhere else to go."

Several panelists agreed with Perilo's concern, saying the WTC panel should step in. "Deutsche Bank is not the only highly contaminated high-rise set for demolition, so this is something our panel should address," said David Newman of NYCOSH.

David Prezant agreed. "I would view the demolition of this building as a test for the future," he said. "There's always talk of when the next terrorist attack will be - this could be a model of what's done with contaminated buildings. We may be forced to do this again."

Later in the meeting was a scheduled presentation by a representative of the LMDC. Irene Chang, general counsel for the LMDC, explained LMDC's perspective. "The LMDC expects to acquire the Deutsche Bank building by the end of the summer," she said. "We hired an environmental group to test contaminants in the building and we expect to receive a report about it soon. In the meantime, we have an engineering firm planning the deconstruction and cleanup of the building."

Chang said whether or not the dust proves to be contaminated, the engineering firm will remove and dispose of it using the federal and local regulations required if dust is contaminated with asbestos. "We're consulting with the EPA and the (New York City Department of Environmental Protection) to plan the disposal and cleanup work," said Chang. "One of the reasons we're doing that is because we want to do it correctly."

Many groans of disbelief and anger were heard in the audience as Chang spoke. Many present - including panelists - wanted to know why building contaminant test results done by Deutsche Bank were not being released for everyone to see.

Chang said the results could not be released due to the pending sale of the building. "The deal is not yet complete, so we can't share the details," she said, adding that LMDC is also waiting for its own environmental firm to complete contaminant testing before anything is released or planned.

One audience member yelled out her request as to whether or not the LMDC would release its testing protocols.

"We'll consider it," said Chang, as the audience erupted into angry gasps and sarcastic shouts of, "oh, well, thank you!"

"What's the harm in releasing the data?" asked panelist Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld of Columbia University Health Sciences. "The public distrust you're getting won't give you any benefit down the road when you do release your own test results."

Other panelists chimed in. "You should work with the residents, as these are serious concerns," said Dr. Paul Lioy. "The issue is that you need to have a dialogue with the community."

Chang answered that the LMDC has always been concerned with the impacts on residents in the immediate area. "There has been a tremendous effort put into the testing," she said. "We are very concerned with learning the present state of the site."

Wilkenfeld again pushed for the release of the Deutsche Bank test results. "When the deal is finalized, can we then have all that data?" he asked.

"I believe that can be done," said Chang.

Residents voiced their request that the EPA be involved during the entire Deutsche Bank building deconstruction process, with some saying this will be the EPA's last chance to prove itself to them. Many want the WTC expert panel to supervise the EPA during the entire retesting process and during all further demolition processes.

Applause followed an EPA official in the audience who said the EPA would be sitting down with the LMDC, federal, state and local agencies to develop a plan for the Deutsche Bank building.

During the final public comment period of the day, many audience members praised panel experts for their hard work so far, but asked them to continue to be vigilant. Many said their repeated requests for transcripts of all the panel meetings were still not being met, and others were concerned about some public testimony from the previous meetings being removed from the panel's Web page on the EPA Web site.

Some said after all the lies they've heard so far, trust is a hard thing to come by. "At this stage, we expect to be lied to and to be suspicious," said Caroline Martin, Manhattan resident and member of the Family Association of Tribeca East.

Resident Barbara Caparalli said only continued open processes and meetings would help. "We want to trust you," she said.


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Related Links:

World Trade Center Environmental Contaminant Database

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