NY debates post-9/11 demolition

New Yorkers are debating which agencies should be in charge of demolishing Sept. 11-contaminated buildings.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | February 18, 2005



"Please understand that this community has been through so much and has the right to know who's in charge."

—Alan J. Gerson


Some moments were heated and tense Thursday as the New York City Council Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment met to discuss which agencies should be in charge of demolishing Sept. 11-contaminated buildings.

When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, toxic dust and debris were blown into numerous buildings around Manhattan. Numerous Ground Zero workers and Manhattan residents are ill from breathing in the mix of toxic chemicals despite word from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the air was safe to breathe days after the attacks. Several contaminated buildings remain standing to this date.

The building at issue now is the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, which was bought by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) at the end of August 2004. Heavily damaged on Sept. 11, the building has stood empty since the date due to the damage and to the remaining toxins present inside. Those toxins include asbestos, dioxin, lead and other hazardous materials.

The LMDC wants to demolish the building, yet community members, organizations, and public officials are objecting to how safe the demolition plans are. The groups are worried further air contamination will occur as the building is taken apart and want the EPA to take control of the process.

The LMDC released the first draft of the proposed demolition plan in December 2004, and the EPA responded in January 2005 by delaying approval until more antipollution safeguards are added.

"In light of the EPA's recent criticism of LMDC's plan to deconstruct the massively contaminated building at 130 Liberty Street, it is clear that the government agencies involved have yet to put in place adequate precautions to ensure the environmental health and safety of residents and workers in Lower Manhattan," said Alan J. Gerson, City Council member and chair of the select committee.

Other agencies the LMDC is coordinating the demolition with include the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the New York State Department of Labor (NYDOL), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and both the state and city departments of health.

"We understand that it's important to take a leadership role," said Pat Evangelista, World Trade Center Coordinator for the EPA, adding that the EPA has in fact taken a leadership role in coordinating the state and federal agencies involved with the 130 Liberty Street demolition. "The LMDC has said they will not proceed in the plan until it's approved."

The city council members hammered the EPA for clarification on their role in the demolition process, forcing back-and-forth questions and assurances from Evangelista and a representative from NYDOL.

"Please understand that this community has been through so much and has the right to know who's in charge," said committee chair Alan J. Gerson. "The community is trying to understand what 'a leading role' is - what does that entail?"

"We will together be tracking the process and be involved," responded Evangelista. "We will have EPA (representatives) on the ground when work commences and will be tracking activities in that regard.

"The EPA is being consistent. We won't have every authority and are doing the best we can to work with our partners."

That answer is not enough for the community members and other involved organizations who want the EPA to follow the law requiring them to oversee the whole demolition process.

"EPA must be the lead agency," said David Newman, industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). "Both Presidential Decision Directive 62 of 1998 and the National Response Plan of 2004 explicitly require EPA to assume lead agency status with regard to issues of environmental health."

NYCOSH has been working with the United Church of Christ since Sept. 11 on funding the testing and treatment of workers affected by the toxic dust released by the buildings.

Newman added the EPA is also suited for the leadership role. "(They are the) only agency with the experience, the expertise, and the resources to ensure that such demolition operations are conducted in a manner that protects public health while ensuring effective removal and proper disposal of hazardous materials."

Other council members concurred that the EPA needs to take more of a leadership role while keeping more open communication with the public in order to restore the trust the agency lost immediately after the attacks.

"This community does not trust you, you need to know that," said Council Member Margarita Lopez. "We have an experience in which you lied to us. Based on that, how do we know we can rely on you? We can begin to believe again if there's a level of communication, a back-and-forth conversation."

Evangelista replied that the agency is committed to moving the demolition process forward. "I'm saying that we will do the best we can in that regard. I suggest that you continue to keep tabs on us and see."

The other agencies working with the EPA and the LMDC voiced their support of open communication and coordination as well.

"We will be part of the process every step of the way," said Robert Avaltroni, deputy commissioner of the NYCDEP's bureau of environmental compliance. "There is no way the DEP and the EPA will let the other proceed without being happy. We will not have a dear ear to anyone."

LMDC President Kevin Rampe also gave testimony before the select committee, noting that he wants the LMDC to be judged on the ultimate result of the demolition, and not on each version of the demolition plan released.

"We fully expect comments and changes to the plan, I think that's important for people to understand," he explained. "We recognize that we are dealing with a contaminated building."

He defended the EPA and the other involved city and state agencies, saying the EPA should be applauded for taking a leadership role in the process and that each agency has its own purpose. "Each of the agencies has their own regulatory impact and we need approval from all of them. One group doesn't have all the say."

Rampe asserted that the LMDC demolition process will continue to invite public comment and to remain transparent.

Issues covered in the hearing switched focus as each speaker came forward. Another concern raised by NYCOSH's David Newman is that the 130 Liberty Street demolition only accounts for the removal of asbestos, and "not other contaminants that are known to be present."

Ann Arlen, member of community activist group 9/11 Environmental Action, spoke on her concerns about the mold in the buildings. "I'm very concerned if mold is not talked about in this process."

Newman also wondered how other as yet undiscovered contaminated buildings in Lower Manhattan will be handled. Linda Rosenthal, an aide from U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler's office, read testimony from Nadler and noted a similar issue.

"There are four empty decontaminated buildings downtown - why are they all being treated as separate projects? The EPA has to take the lead. Environmental protection is not a spectator sport."

The building at 4 Albany Street is already being demolished. Another structure set for demolition is Fiterman Hall of the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Other comments from the public touched on the lack of involvement from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) regarding the risk of air contaminants entering the city's subway system. Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Just Project, displayed photos of two large subway ventilation grates located beneath the scaffolding at 130 Liberty Street.

"The MTA has not been involved until now," said Kupferman, adding that it wasn't until the continued calls from his office about the ventilation grates that the MTA became involved in the issue.

Kupferman shared his frustration about the public only holding the EPA accountable for its mistakes after 9/11. "If we only focus on the EPA, we're letting all the city agencies get away with slow murder."

He is also worried about how the city's firefighters are being treated, noting that he is both concerned about the firehouse directly next to 130 Liberty Street as well as the other downtown firehouses that were never properly cleaned.

Closing out the meeting, the final speakers represented 9/11 Environmental Action. They also disputed the EPA's honesty regarding their role in the demolition. One speaker took issue with just how open to public comment the LMDC claims to have been thus far, saying the LMDC open meetings don't allow the public to speak.

Kimberly Flynn said one of few positives she can see thus far is the change in LMDC's plans since last summer. "We can say that the demolition expected to take place this summer is vastly safer than the one slated originally for this past fall."

Fellow group member Jenna Orkin said all the wrangling over who's in charge is pointing to a bigger reason. "What this all comes down to in the end is who gets sued down the road - that's what the EPA is doing," she said. "What the community thinks 'taking a lead' means is responsibility and leadership. What (the EPA means) is to shirk their responsibilities."

Throughout the hearing, Gerson made it clear that any issues brought to him by the speakers would be investigated. "I think we all recognize the profound and potential impact of any building demolition is on its neighbors. We know what we are doing here is unprecedented - lives and health are at stake.

"If we mean what we say, we will all do what we can to protect human life."

Meanwhile, the EPA's World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel will hold its tenth meeting next week, where it will continue to review and debate the draft sampling plan aimed at further testing other city properties for remaining contamination. The panel is also still researching a World Trade center dust 'fingerprint.'


Related Topics:

Motorcycle riders honor Flight 93

NJ interfaith group closes doors

Observing 9/11 by doing good deeds


More links on September 11 2001

 

Related Links:

NYCOSH

LMDC

EPA WTC Response

9/11 Environmental Action

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