Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004



Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Frederica Perera talks with Paul Gilman, outgoing chairperson of the E.P.A. panel to review the World Trade Center cleanup program.

E.P.A. waits for permission to test its own offices

By Ronda Kaysen

The Environmental Protection Agency’s World Trade Center environmental retesting plan is mired in bureaucracy delays and the agency has not even received permission to test its own Lower Manhattan offices.

At a Nov. 15 E.P.A. Expert Technical Review Panel meeting, representatives from the E.P.A. announced that in order for the agency to identify a “signature” — a defining trait that differentiates W.T.C. disaster dust from regular New York City dust — it needs access to buildings both near the W.T.C. disaster site and far outside of the dust plume’s reach.

“We are looking for people to open their homes to samplers,” said Nancy Adams, team leader of decontamination and consequence management for the E.P.A./ORD National Homeland Security Research Center. “We need as many samples as we can get.”

So far, the agency has tested one apartment and four commercial buildings to validate W.T.C. dust, but it does not have permission from the city, state or federal government to test government buildings, including the E.P.A.’s own offices at 290 Broadway. The agency hopes to sample 120 buildings south of Houston St. for the sampling program itself, which is expected to begin in the spring.

Advocates say local residents and business owners are reluctant to open their homes and businesses to an agency that many Downtowners feel, in the aftermath of 9/11, misled them about the area’s air quality. The government’s reluctance to participate offers little comfort.

“Why would other landlords want to open up their spaces if the government won’t?” Catherine McVay Hughes, the panel’s community liaison, said later. “What do they know that I don’t know? Especially since I’m a resident Downtown sitting on the panel.” Hughes also expressed concern for employees in government buildings who may want their offices checked, despite what their employer — in this case the government — wants.

Employees, both in the public and private sectors, should have the right to have their workplaces sampled for contamination if they so choose, but they currently do not under federal law, according to David Newman, a member of the 17-member panel and a representative from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Public and private employees do, however, have the right to review any sampling results their employers receive, if they request them.

The lack of access to government buildings for both the signature validation stage of the process and the sampling stage is a bureaucratic delay, not a refusal of access, according to the E.P.A. “Nancy [Adams] is negotiating with G.S.A. to have access to the buildings,” said Michael Brown, an E.P.A. spokesperson. The U.S. General Services Administration manages the country’s federal buildings, including 290 Broadway. “It’s a big bureaucracy,” Brown added. “Their request is working its way through the system.”

Local officials and researchers view the exclusion of government buildings as a detriment to the scientific process. “It is important to get a sample representative of the buildings that might have been affected,” said panelist Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld of the Environmental Health and Safety Department at Columbia University. “Statistically, you need a certain amount of buildings” to achieve an accurate and representative sampling.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district office is on Chambers St. near the W.T.C. site, insists that a comprehensive study must include a broad sampling of buildings, including government buildings. “We need to have a full cross section of Downtown,” said Gerson. “Any cross section has to include the city and federal buildings.” Gerson has also been insistent that Downtown parks and playgrounds where children regularly play be checked. At the Nov. 15 meeting, the panel discussed including parks as well.

Spokespersons for both G.S.A. and the Department for Citywide Administrative Services, which manages 53 city-owned office and court buildings, did not return calls for comment.

The E.P.A. hopes to sample apartments in Manhattan north of 79th St. for the background sample. According to Adams, the samplers cause little disturbance to the apartments they visit, simply vacuuming the space with HEPA vacuums. “It would be a public service and it would be a minimal inconvenience,” she said.

With no plan in place for how to go about cleaning up contamination if and once it is found, residents wonder who will be responsible for cleaning the contamination if it is discovered in their own apartments. “Unless this [the sampling] is linked to cleanup, people would not want to volunteer to find out that there are high levels of contaminants [in their homes or offices],” Micki Siegel de Hernandez, the panel’s alternate community liaison, told the panel.

The expert panel — formed last March by Senator Hilary Clinton and the White House Council on Environmental Quality when the senator held up the confirmation of E.P.A. administrator Michael Leavitt last year — has two years to complete its analysis of how far the W.T.C. dust plume traveled, the extent of the contamination and how to track the health consequences of the dust. The panel was created largely in the hopes of restoring public trust of the E.P.A. in the aftermath of 9/11, following an independent inspector general report that judged the E.P.A. acted with insufficient evidence when it determined the air in Lower Manhattan safe to breath.

Community support is crucial to an accurate study of the area, according to outgoing panel chairperson Paul Gilman. “If we don’t have the community engaged, we’re at a real disadvantage,” he told The Villager. Gilman announced his resignation from both the E.P.A. and the panel on Nov. 3. His successor has yet to be named. The panel’s next meeting, in December, has yet to be scheduled.

Details regarding the cleaning process cannot be worked out until an accurate picture of the contamination is determined. Gilman said the E.P.A. planned to enlist the community for help in locating potential participants. “It’s about communication and people understanding what we’re doing…. We need to assure people who are participating that if indeed we find levels we’re going to clean that apartment,” Gilman said.

Government participation in the sampling process may put some residents and business owners at ease, according to panelist Wilkenfeld. “It would promote a great deal of goodwill among the residents if those [government] buildings are included,” he said.
Finding contamination does not guarantee that the contaminated area will be cleaned, even if an agency is willing to foot the bill. For example, public spaces, such as an apartment building hallway, must have the approval of the building’s owner, not its residents, to be cleaned. “We’re not forcing people to do anything and that may be upsetting for some people,” Gilman told the panel.

Manhattan residents and business owners both near the W.T.C. site and north of 79th St. who would like to participate in the sampling and validation process should contact Nancy Adams at 919-541-5510.

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