EPA to sample for WTC dust

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it will proceed with a plan to sample buildings in Manhattan that were affected by the cloud of dust sent out when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK, N.Y. | November 30, 2005

"I think it's a terrible plan."

—David Newman

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it will proceed with a modified plan to sample and clean buildings in Manhattan that were affected by the cloud of dust sent out when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11.

The announcement came a month after the agency's own peer review panel rejected the original sampling plan because "EPA has not made the case that its proposed analytical method can reliably discriminate background dust from dust contaminated with WTC residue....The proposed method has not demonstrated the utility of slag wool as a successful signature constituent."

The plan was devised by members of the EPA's World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel during its 21-month existence. The panel, made up of public health officials, scientists, educational leaders and community representatives, was formed 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."

Extensive debate amongst the panel members and the public ensued as the sampling plan was created, with many - including panel members - saying that it was inadequate and would not protect the public's health.

In a letter released Tuesday, panel chair Dr. Timothy Oppelt said they will proceed with the plan detailed on pages 19-21 of the draft released in June of this year. He noted that while many members of the panel offered up new suggestions on how to do an effective sampling and cleaning plan, "...given the significant amount of time that has lapsed since the collapse and since the formation of the panel, we believe it is more important at this point to move ahead with the implementation of sampling."

The plan outlined on pages 19-21 of the June draft is very similar to the sampling and cleaning program offered to Lower Manhattan residents in the months immediately after Sept. 11. The plan will sample buildings in a selected area of Lower Manhattan whose owners and residents volunteer for the testing. One change in the plan is that air sampling for asbestos and man-made vitreous fibers will now be included, in addition to surface sampling. According to the final plan, "cleanups will be offered if either the surface loadings or air benchmarks are exceeded." The public has two months to register for the testing.

The final plan also states that "employers and employees will not be eligible for this program," and alternatively may file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration if they "believe that their working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful as a result of contamination by WTC dust."

The reaction from the community is one of disappointment. For David Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), the plan is a failure.

"I think it's a terrible plan," said Newman, who also served on the panel. Newman is not surprised by the plan, though, saying he knew something like this would be produced once the peer review returned in October.

"Probably the only thing positive I can say about this plan is that it includes three additional (contaminants of particular concern) to be tested for. But the plan really fails and is inadequate to accomplish its mission."

Since the peer review panel rejected the June sampling plan a month ago, community activists and panel members have been hedging their bets on just what was next for the plan. Many were not surprised at the peer review rejection, but remained worried about what the next step would be.

"The peer reviewers made most of the same comments that our team did," said Kimberly Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action. Flynn said she and many of her fellow Lower Manhattan residents assumed the agency was in disarray once the rejection came down.

The plan will be discussed at a December 13 meeting of the panel - which Oppelt also announced will be the final meeting of the panel.

To Newman, that means the panel has not fulfilled its mission. "The mission of the panel is pretty clear, and it's pretty clear that we have not achieved or accomplished the mission set out for us. None of that has happened. It's just a disappointing retreat from the EPA's and the panel's mandate - and the EPA's statutory mission to protect environmental health."

Newman said he expects the level of outrage from the public will be high at the December meeting, and once the panel is disbanded, that the outrage will continue through the work of the residential and labor community around the city. "People who are concerned and who have been affected will continue to be active around these issues. It's just unfortunate that the opportunity to address this in a focused manner is coming to an end."

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