Volume 75, Number 42 | March 8 -14 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Above: a Coast Guard hazmat unit member goes through decontamination after doing anthrax cleanup at 31 Downing St. last week. Below: a Coast Guardsman gets his facemask checked before heading into the building, where low levels of anthrax were found.

Cleaning service takes on new meaning in the Village

By Jefferson Siegel

Greenwich Village may not qualify as a superfund cleanup site, although two of the neighborhood’s buildings have been the focus of intensive hazardous material cleanups recently.

An apartment building at 31 Downing St. was evacuated last Thursday as a top-floor apartment was searched and scoured for any remaining traces of natural anthrax. Meanwhile, a six-story apartment building at 55 W. Eighth St. remains empty as it is practically being dismantled inside two months after mercury from an unknown source was found dripping into a second-floor apartment.

Last Thursday Downing St. was closed for the day from Sixth Ave. to Bedford St. for the cleanup of the apartment of Vado Diomande, 44, an African drummer and dancer stricken with anthrax last month. The pavement in front of 31 Downing St. was covered in plastic and two large tents had been erected. A large white tent, with “U S Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team” printed on the side, filled the street near the building’s entrance. Part of this tent was used by cleanup teams to don white hazmat suits, while the other part held equipment used to decontaminate workers coming out of Diomande’s apartment. A smaller blue tent held supplies and was used as a work area.

Pat Seppi, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson who was on the scene, said, “We’re decontaminating the residence of the patient.” Diomande is still recovering in a Pennsylvania hospital. Officials believe Diomande contracted inhalational anthrax while using raw goatskins from the Ivory Coast to make drumheads.

“We’re HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] vacuuming the possessions and applying a chlorox solution to the hard surfaces to clean them,” Seppi said.

On Feb. 22, the city’s Department of Health circulated a letter to tenants advising them that “...there is no indication that any other persons in your building are at risk for anthrax.” Residents were allowed to stay in their homes as hazmat teams from the police and F.B.I. checked the apartment for the presence of anthrax and took photographs of the apartment. Diomande’s apartment subsequent tested positive for low levels of anthrax.

“We did have some positive hits on the apartment,” Seppi said, “and we think it [the anthrax] came from Brooklyn.” Diomande worked with the goatskins at a warehouse in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn.

“We evacuated the [Downing St.] apartment building for the day, from 8 to 8 because, in addition to cleaning the apartment, we’re also cleaning the common areas,” Seppi added.

Inside the large white tent, Coast Guardsmen pulled on white suits, gloves and breathing masks. The Atlantic Strike Team, based in Fort Dix, N.J., specializes in cleanups of chemicals, oil spills and other hazardous materials. As each finished donning the protective gear, another Guardsman carefully inspected him from head to toe, covering any exposed areas or spaces with duct tape.

Neil Norrell, the on-scene coordinator for the E.P.A.’s Region 2 team, said it took several days to get a positive result for anthrax because there is no test that offers immediate, definitive results. Two tests were performed simultaneously at the city’s Department of Health labs. The first test takes 24 hours to detect the presence of anthrax spores. However, this test “can’t differentiate between a live spore and a piece of the organism that’s dead, so you have to culture it,” Norrell explained. The culturing takes 24 hours, after which a confirmation analysis is performed.

Norrell said the incident was isolated. “It’s naturally occuring anthrax, so the problem was just inside the apartment,” he said.

Norrell said the cleanup team was trying to save as much of Diomande and his wife’s personal belongings as possible. However, porous materials like clothing, seat cushions, carpets and drapery, where spores could be embedded, were bagged and removed.

“Any material we think that could be contaminated is being incinerated,” Norrell said as boxes from the apartment were being loaded into a truck. “Because this is a naturally occuring organism, you can treat it the same way you would any medical waste.”

As he spoke, three more white-suited hazmat workers emerged from the building and began the process of decontamination. One by one, each stepped first into a large, 1-foot-high tub. Another hazmat-clad worker sprayed a bleach solution over the entire white suit. The cleanup worker then waited 15 minutes for the solution to work. He then stepped into an adjoining tub, where a high-pressure stream of water was sprayed over him to wash off the bleach.

“I realize that this looks like a big deal,” Norrell said as the workers went through the cleansing process, “but we set something up this extensive because we wanted to be overly cautious.”

Several blocks away on W. Eighth St., another apartment building has been empty for almost two months after a tenant found the toxic chemical mercury in a puddle in her bedroom.

On Jan. 12, longtime building resident Carol Wilson returned from vacation to discover a silvery liquid dripping from her bedroom ceiling. Within hours the building was evacuated. Workers have removed floors, walls and ceilings in an attempt to find the source of the mercury. Most of Wilson’s possessions have been removed for incineration and tests continue to determine if any toxic vapors remain.

Late last week the city’s Department of Environmental Protection determined the building is clean.

“We have cleared the building,” D.E.P. spokesperson Ian Michaels said last Friday. “D.E.P. has found mercury levels are down to within our guidelines.” However, the city’s Health Department will be the final arbiter of the building’s safety as their tests continue. “We still do not know” where the mercury came from, Michaels added.

For the past two months Wilson and residents of the building’s eight other apartments have lived in hotel rooms, on friends’ couches and in temporary sublets. However, even once the building is declared habitable, Wilson and the three people who lived above her will not be able to return any time soon.

Recently Wilson stood in her apartment hallway in front of a cavernous space which used to contain her bedrooms and the bedrooms of the apartment above. Now the walls from both apartments have been removed and the ceiling that used to separate her bedroom from the one above is gone, leaving a bare, two-story-high space. Electric wires dangled on one side. Her floor has been removed, leaving only rafters visible.

A large hole in one floor looks into the ground-floor shoe store below. The store, Studio 55, remained open during the early part of the evacuation, but was then closed for two days, tested and allowed to reopen when no trace of mercury was detected.

“We’re almost done,” said Stephen Jaraczewski, an environmental engineering consult who has been overseeing the cleanup, last Wednesday.

Small plastic disks — mercury vapor monitors — were located in three locations in Wilson’s apartment. Each will be removed and tested to determine if any toxic vapors remain.

Over several days, workers at the Eighth St. building have been observed carrying out bags destined for incineration. As opposed to the cleanup at 31 Downing St., the workers did not wear face masks or any other protective gear. The standard uniform appeared to be a company T-shirt and jeans.

Last Wednesday a worker was observed placing clear bags filled with Wilson’s personal belongings in front of the building and leaving the pile unattended for several minutes at a time. After a large pile of bags had accumulated, one worker dragged two lightly loaded bags past pedestrians to a waiting truck. At least one of the bags had a hole. One bag held various clothing items of Wilson’s, another several wooden dresser drawers.

“I get mixed messages from everybody,” Wilson said last weekend. “At one point I’m told everything has to go. At another point I’m told some things can be salvaged, at another point I’m told some things can be ventilated [to air out any mercury vapors and be salvaged].”

After mercury was first detected in one of her bedrooms, most of the contents of the two bedrooms were removed for incineration. Wilson was told books, papers and other items in two other rooms tested negative and could be saved.

But Wilson is concerned workers may have contaminated her “safe” possessions by placing contaminated items in her clean living room. “I was told it didn’t affect metal, and they’re throwing out all these metal things — scissors, bookends,” she said. This past week saw workers accelerating the pace of discarding items. It seemed like “they weren’t even paying attention after awhile,” she said.

Wilson, who is a graphic designer, planned to drive to a Long Island warehouse to try and reclaim some bags filled with her property. “It’s not only my things,” she lamented. “It’s my life, it’s my photography, it’s my research.”

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