NYC cleanup criticized

Linda Belfer is plagued by ailments that were not around before the Sept. 11 attacks.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | July 13, 2005



"Workers and residents should have the right to volunteer their workplaces and residences for sampling."

—Micki Siegel de Hernandez


Linda Belfer is plagued by ailments that were not around before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As she spoke to the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel Tuesday, she sat in a wheelchair. "I now have allergies that I didn’t have before,” she said to the panel. "My immune system has taken a shot – and I’m in a wheelchair."

Belfer's apartment overlooks the World Trade Center site, and on Sept. 11, the dust cloud from the falling towers enveloped her building. She was unable to live in the apartment for four months. She worries that her apartment was never cleaned properly after the terrorist attacks, and that remaining dust will continue to deteriorate her health.

"I am a victim, my neighbors are victims, we continue to be victims," she said. "God knows what the long-term effects will be on us."

Panel members and the community continued to debate – at times very heatedly – the Environmental Protection Agency's revised sampling plan aimed at determining whether toxic dust blown throughout Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn on Sept. 11 remains.

The World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel was convened by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the spring of 2004 to help assess and minimize remaining hazards from the World Trade Center attacks.

Belfer, like most community members in attendance Tuesday, heavily criticized the newest draft of the sampling plan, which proposes gathering and testing dust samples from a selected number of buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

During one presentation, two panel members that represent the World Trade Center Community-Labor Coalition called the EPA's plan a "monumental disappointment."

"We don't agree with the views that there were vast changes made in this draft," said Micki Siegel de Hernandez, a panel member and labor liaison, alluding to months of back-and-forth negotiations between the community and the EPA regarding the sampling plan.

Access remained one of the top issues cited by Hernandez and her co-presenter, fellow panel member and representative from Manhattan’s Community Board 1 Cathy McVay Hughes. The coalition remained opposed to the proposed plan’s allowing owners and managers of the to-be-sampled buildings to refuse access.

“Workers and residents should have the right to volunteer their workplaces and residences for sampling,” said Hernandez to the applause of many in the audience. Many members of the public who spoke later in the day agreed that the EPA should use its power to require building owners to open their buildings for sampling and testing.

"The EPA needs to listen to its middle name and protect the public,” said one woman during the public comment section.

Other remaining problems for the Coalition regarding the proposed plan include what they called the EPA’s mislabeling of some testing areas as “inaccessible” and “infrequently accessed.”

“ ‘Infrequently accessed’ and ‘inaccessible’ areas are most likely to harbor remaining World Trade Center contamination and a greater emphasis should be given to these areas,” Hernandez said.

Many of the areas most people consider infrequently accessed or inaccessible are in fact where numerous workers spend their days, Hernandez added, such as telephone workers and electricians.

The Coalition also took issue with the EPA’s proposed benchmarks for what would require cleaning. The current draft of the sampling plan states that contaminants found in ‘inaccessible’ areas would not trigger a cleanup from the EPA.

“The EPA continues to ignore the fact that thousands of workers access so-called ‘inaccessible’ locations every single day to do their jobs,” said Hernandez.

Another problem the Coalition saw with the proposed plan is the wipe sampling method the EPA plans to use for collecting organic dust compounds from carpets, upholstery and drapes. McVay Hughes read a quote from the American Society of Testing Method’s Standard Practice for Field Collection of Organic Compounds Using Wipe Sampling.

“‘This wipe sampling practice is not recommended for collecting samples of organic compounds from rough or porous surfaces such as upholstery, carpeting, brick, rough concrete, ceiling tiles, and bare wood. It is also not intended for the collection of dust samples or sampling to estimate human exposure to contaminated surfaces,’” she read.

But some members of the panel defended the sampling plan, asserting that it is the best plan and that it has taken into account all of the public’s input.

“I think the plan has come a long way,” said E. Timothy Oppelt, interim chair of the panel and director of the EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center. “The EPA plan is a scientifically-based plan that will be effective – and I want to remind everyone that this is a sampling plan, not a cleanup plan.”

Tuesday’s meeting was meant to be the final chance for any remaining input to be taken into account for the sampling plan. Some panel members surprised others with their own presentation about their lingering concerns with the plan.

“We actually support many aspects of this plan, but we think there needs to be some fine tuning,” said panelist David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department.

“We want to maximize participation. Why destroy the plan from the beginning? Guarantee a cleanup. Say, ‘if you’re tested, we’ll clean up.’ And as you’re gathering all the data, validate a signature.”

Prezant was alluding to the current plan’s linkage to whether scientists can in fact determine a World Trade Center dust ‘signature.’ If scientists cannot determine a signature, the sampling plan would become a redo of the 2002 EPA cleanup, which was voluntary. Many community members and activists criticized the 2002 cleanup for not cleaning buildings correctly in the first place and for not offering the cleaning to a large enough geographic area.

The Coalition is calling upon the EPA to de-link the sampling plan from the signature, noting that if a signature is not found, the 2002 plan rehash will leave workers without any protection since it only allows building owners and residents to volunteer their spaces for testing and cleaning.

Prezant and panelist Jeanne Stillman’s surprise presentation threw the discussion into an uproar for some time, as they also called the plan’s statistical model of choosing random buildings for sampling inappropriate for the situation because of the possibility of refused access by building owners.

Stillman, a panelist and deputy head of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, said another subcommittee should be created to quickly review whether the correct statistical model is being used.

“We’re not trying to be obstructionists here,” explained Prezant. “We’re trying to move it forward. You’re setting up a policy nightmare.”

The meeting’s tensions continued to rise when, later in the meeting, results were unveiled by the EPA Office of Research and Development that showed some news on the World Trade Center (WTC) dust signature front. One tested sample showed that using the material slag wool – which was a common building material found in the WTC towers – as an identifier of the WTC dust did work for samples taken up to approximately 1.5 miles from Ground Zero.

Oppelt and several other members of the panel want to use the data as a definite marker of lingering WTC contamination if it’s positively received by an independent peer review panel. The audience quickly fired back with shouts of disagreement.

“More testing needs to be done on samples taken from one to five kilometers away because your results show slag wool amounts decreasing rapidly in samples from farther away than one kilometer – but we all know that the dust cloud moved farther out than that,” shouted audience member Robert Gulack, a union steward from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

After some heated exchange, the discussion was finally shut down in order to catch up on the agenda. Many in the audience said they did not know if a resolution was reached, yet most were angry that some on the panel wanted to claim a WTC signature based on one sample.

“If the audience hadn’t spoken up, they wouldn’t have admitted that this is just a valuable dust analysis method and not proof that slag wool is a signature,” added Gulack.

The only thing many in the audience could agree upon was that everyone wanted was more testing of samples – yet most disagreed about what these samples would be tested for. Some on the panel wanted to move forward with the plan, and others wanted more samples to be tested in order to see if the signature was present.

“I would like to see more data,” said Greg Meeker, panelist and research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “What we have right now is a validated method for analyzing dust. Based on that, we need to start sampling to see if that holds up.”

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the current World Trade Center Health Registry’s work, research activities involving WTC health effects, and an update on the demolition process for several buildings damaged on Sept. 11.

The overall feeling for the day was one of confusion and anger for many in the audience and some on the panel. “It’s hard to believe we’re years into this process, this is more like an opening discussion,” said Michael Edelstein, head of the environmental studies department at Ramapo College in New Jersey. “Today’s discussion leads me to ask how have we come this far without a better sense of what we’re dealing with?”

During the public comment period, audience members’ testimonies drew both applause and tears as activists and Sept. 11 survivors spoke about their work and lives.

“We believe the current EPA plan is doomed to failure but there is still time to correct it,” said union representative Paul Stein.

Others spoke up about why they continue to stay involved in the debates over the sampling plan. “We the people have an obligation to take it upon ourselves to make sure that the EPA cuts no corners this time around because the future of New Yorkers is still at risk,” said Manhattan resident Alex Sanchez.

Still others reiterated their continued distrust of the EPA after making so many damaging mistakes immediately after Sept. 11 – such as reassuring New Yorkers that the air was safe and everyone was safe to return to the homes and offices in Manhattan.

“I find it hard to understand (the EPA’s) failure to make the corrections that are obviously needed in the proposed testing plan for Sept. 11 contamination,” said Suzanne Mattei, New York City executive for the Sierra Club.

“We need to know that our workplaces and homes do not harbor toxic Ground Zero dust. A proper testing and cleanup program would show that the government can get it right.”

Kimberly Flynn of the community group 9/11 Environmental Action closed out the public comments by saying that the right plan can still be created. “We are not too far down the road to do a mid-course correction,” she said.


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Related Links:

EPA WTC Expert Technical Review Panel

9/11 Environmental Action

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