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NYC debates toxic air

Air quality in Lower Manhattan remains a contentious issue as federal, state, and local agencies announce new programs and spar with residents over old ones.


"It should not be possible to get permits to do work in impacted buildings without EPA scrutiny and guidance."

—Kimberly Flynn

Air quality in Lower Manhattan remains a contentious issue as federal, state, and local agencies announce new programs and spar with residents over old ones.

On Wednesday, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center (LMCCC) announced that it will operate a new air quality monitoring program during the Lower Manhattan rebuilding process. Residents and workers are concerned about the lingering toxins in Sept. 11-damaged buildings that are slated for demolition.

The LMCCC was created by New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to coordinate the Lower Manhattan rebuilding process. The air quality monitoring program will be operated in coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

“The Construction Command Center will consistently monitor the air quality in Lower Manhattan neighborhoods to ensure that construction projects are not adversely affecting the health of Lower Manhattan residents and businesses,” said LMCCC Executive Director Charles Maikish in a news release.

“Among the major goals of the Command Center is to mitigate the impact of construction on the Lower Manhattan community, including monitoring air quality, and to assure that project sponsors carry out their environmental performance commitments during construction.”

Residents are reacting positively to the plan and hope that the commitment to the community remains strong.

“We have been assured that the (LMCCC) is seeking a partnership with the community to come up with the best possible program,” said Kimberly Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action, a community group in Lower Manhattan.

“We hope that the (LMCCC) will work with the community to make sure that the program is effective in capturing the kind of up-to-the-minute, accurate and comprehensive air quality information we need, and in disseminating it to the public in real time.”

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) is already running an air quality monitoring program in the area as well, in coordination with their plans to demolish the 130 Liberty Street skyscraper – the former Deutsche Bank building that was heavily damaged on Sept. 11.

LMDC officials noted Wednesday that they will continue their air quality program for the duration of the demolition process and keep it separate from the LMCCC program.

In late May, the Transport Workers Union raised concerns over air quality issues near 4 Albany Street – another Sept. 11-affected building slated for demolition. A fan for a subway station is located near the building and the union workers requested an investigation by the New York City Transit Office of System Safety into worker and public safety during the asbestos abatement process for the building.

According to the Office of System Safety, their office’s investigation process found levels of asbestos, nickel, and lead in excess of EPA-safe levels on dates in January and March. In a letter to the union, the Office of System Safety said engineers replaced certain fans, air filters, and air purifiers in April and no excess levels were detected during the remainder of the asbestos abatement.

According to the letter, “the same procedure will be followed for the abatement and deconstruction of the building located at 130 Liberty Street to evaluate any impacts to the Albany Street fan plant.”

Also related to building contamination, two other buildings slated for demolition had their demolition permits revoked. In an apparent oversight among the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the EPA, adequate plans had not yet been made to handle the toxins remaining within the buildings enveloped by dust when the Twin Towers fell.

Residents saw scaffolding going up and contacted Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s office for help, and a staff member alerted the involved agencies to the mistake. The building’s owners are now meeting with environmental officials to plan the demolition accordingly.

That error left community activists worried that they are doing the jobs of the city and federal agencies.

“The key thing is, without the constant vigilance of nearby residents, a regular demolition would have commenced of two heavily contaminated buildings – with the likely result that highly toxic – and also highly respirable – dust would have been released into the surrounding area,” said Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action.

Flynn and other residents blame the city’s DOB and DEP for not paying attention, and the EPA for not taking on more of a roll in the demolition process.

“It should not be possible to get permits to do work in impacted buildings without EPA scrutiny and guidance,” Flynn noted. “(The) EPA is tasked under the National Strategy for Homeland Security with decontaminating buildings and neighborhoods contaminated as the result of a terrorist attack. They still have some serious unfinished business in Lower Manhattan. (The) EPA should take charge of these dangerous demolitions instead of, once again, shifting the burden of dealing with hazardous dust onto area residents.”

The EPA has stated numerous times that they are taking “a leading role” in the various demolitions throughout Manhattan, but residents say that is not enough.

Residents continue to push the EPA’s Sept. 11 Expert Technical Review Panel to take more of an interest in the demolitions, yet the EPA’s Michael Brown said the panel is not responsible for that issue.

“It is not in the purview of the panel to consider the deconstruction of buildings,” said Brown, an EPA staff to the panel and associate assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He added that the only reason that the demolition process continues to get time during the panel meetings is because of public interest.

The EPA’s website for the Expert Technical Review Panel states that the panel was created to “characterize any remaining exposures and risks, identify unmet public health needs, and recommend any steps to further minimize the risks associated with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.”

At the last meeting of the panel, the revised draft sampling proposal was released. The sampling proposal aims at retesting buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn to determine whether lingering WTC dust remains. The proposal’s final move is hinged upon whether a WTC dust “signature” will be found.

EPA researchers at the May 24 panel meeting revealed that their original quest for two dust signatures is now down to only one. The scientists had originally hoped to find a signature for both the building collapse and for the Ground Zero fires – which continued for months after Sept. 11. After months of tests, they came to the conclusion that the fire signature could not be distinguished from other building fires.

Brown said this is not all that surprising. “The things that burned in the World Trade Center towers are not unlike the very things that burn in other building fires – things like carpet, furniture, wallboard, computers, and more,” he explained. “In that respect, the World Trade Center towers weren’t appreciably different from other office fires.”

Yet this news came as a surprise to residents and employees of the areas enveloped by the dust from the initial collapse and the smoke from the subsequent fires. Flynn said she knows of many people in areas that were only affected by the smoke who are now dealing with serious respiratory problems.

She said her organization and its partners agree that the EPA’s choice of sampling for only one possible component of a fire signature was not enough because the smoke was a “toxic soup of pollutants."

9/11 Environmental Action is also united with the World Trade Center Community Labor Coalition against many aspects of the draft sampling proposal. The groups take issue with the plan’s aim to only test “accessible” areas of apartments, and not places where dust can settle, such as in ventilation units and behind appliances.

Another major problem for these organizations and many public officials such as Congressman Jerrold Nadler and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton – whose request helped bring the EPA panel into existence – is that the sampling plan does not require buildings slated for sampling to be tested. Building owners and landlords are allowed to refuse the testing.

“Unfortunately, it appears at first glance that the EPA's long-awaited plan has been designed in a way that is fundamentally inadequate to determine the true extent of WTC dust contamination,” said Nadler. “It is imperative that the EPA now act to incorporate more of the ideas and concerns of the residents, workers and environmental advocates into a revised, scientifically rigorous sampling plan.”

Members of the panel even disagree with the plan. "While we are pleased that (the) EPA agreed to test workplaces as well as residences, that is a hollow promise if employers can bar access for testing," said David Newman, industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and member of the Expert Technical Review Panel.

"If workers are disenfranchised under this plan, the plan will fail. (The) EPA must gain access to test buildings near Ground Zero."

Yet the EPA and some panel members remain committed to the revised sampling plan, citing that they have listened to the public’s concerns and taken them into account. “This has been an open process since the first meeting in April 2004,” said Brown. “We’ve moved significantly closer to a plan that reflects their desire, but at the same time, the plan must be scientifically credible and do-able.”

Brown anticipates the sampling plan starting later this summer, once the final dust signature is attained.

Other important Sept. 11 issues coming up now:

-Workers’ Compensation: The Bush Administration is battling the State of New York over the remaining $125 million in funds that was earmarked for workers’ compensation claims for Ground Zero rescue workers. The 2006 federal budget would reclaim the money, but community organizations and lawmakers are asking the Bush Administration to leave it with the state. They’re also asking the state to stop dragging its feet on the remaining claims for that money.

“The lack of disbursement of these funds does not reflect a lack of need, rather it reflects difficulties that workers have faced in having their claims processed,” said Maggie Jarry, director of disaster recovery and advocacy for New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS).

“In addition, NYC agencies, like NYDIS' programs for recovery workers and the Unmet Needs Roundtable are now seeing significant increases of medical and mental health illnesses related to 9/11 exposures, especially for recovery workers. We believe it is immoral and unethical not to insure these funds are retained to address these emerging and serious needs."

-Community Block Grants: The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) recently revealed its plans for the remaining $800 million in community block grants aimed at helping rebuild and revitalize Lower Manhattan. Community groups have been arguing with the LMDC for months now regarding how the organization has spent money aimed at helping the community, saying that the money should go to creating jobs and helping pay for the medical bills of those suffering illnesses caused by WTC dust.

The LMDC said the remaining money will go toward grants and support for local schools, cultural sites, parks and playgrounds, revitalizing specific neighborhoods like Chinatown and the two waterfront centers, as well as other local issues.

“The recent announcement by LMDC with proposed allocations is a hopeful step in many regards, but much remains to be worked out in the details of how the money will be spent,” said NYDIS’ Jarry.

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