E.P.A. says I.P.N. stairwells are safe

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The stairwells of 310 Greenwich St. received a clean bill of health from the Environmental Protection Agency last week, the outcome of the third round of tests they underwent as part of the agency’s Lower Manhattan cleanup.

The first two times the stairwells were cleaned and tested for asbestos beginning in January, 2003, overloaded filters prevented scientists from analyzing some of the test results, according to E.P.A spokesperson Mary Mears. Asbestos was one of many contaminants released in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and the E.P.A.’s response to the disaster has focused largely on asbestos cleaning and testing in residences south of Canal, Pike and Allen Sts.

News that the stairwells cleared surprised the property manager at Independence Plaza North, the three-building Tribeca complex that includes 310 Greenwich St. Deborah Dolan, the manager, said an E.P.A. worker told her last Tuesday that the agency couldn’t get a reading for some of the samples on the third try, either.

On Friday, Mears confirmed that there had been a mistake: agency workers had looked at the results of the second test when they told Dolan that there was an overloaded filter on the third try.

“Unfortunately, we pulled out the old data,” Mears said.

Last week’s mix-up is one of many hurdles, from minor inconveniences to major procedural issues, to have hampered the E.P.A.’s unprecedented effort to clean and test some 4,100 residences in response to the trade center disaster. Since the voluntary asbestos cleaning and testing program began last August, residents have voiced frustration on subjects ranging from the hassles of the agency’s bureaucracy to the E.P.A.’s overall execution of the cleanup.

Some tenants at I.P.N. said the temporary confusion over the stairwell test results was indicative of the E.P.A.’s overall handling of the cleanup

“It was par for the course for their ineptness throughout the whole program,” said Maureen Silverman, a resident of 40 Harrison St.

More troubling than last week’s episode, Silverman said, was that the common area test results are only surfacing now, more than five months after the E.P.A. began cleaning at I.P.N. Tenants said that the agency assured them before the program began that common areas would be cleared before they started on the apartments.

“Clearly, the spirit of the protocols calls for cleaning the common areas first before cleaning the apartments,” said David Newman, an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a non-profit advocacy group.

While the agency’s contractors did begin working on the common areas before the apartments, some common areas had to be re-cleaned after individual apartments had been scoured earlier this year. This prompted concerns of recontamination among residents, who feared they could track asbestos fibers from potentially contaminated common areas to their cleaned apartments, or that air currents could stir up harmful fibers that could be blown into their homes.

It remains unclear how much of a risk recontamination poses, in part because the E.P.A. has not released a complete report of all common area tests at I.P.N. Dolan said that the E.P.A. has not sent her anything in writing about the complex’s laundry rooms, stairwells, or other common areas.

The agency plans to release a detailed report of all common area findings, but it remains unclear when it will be published, said spokesperson Mears.

According to E.P.A. protocol, a re-cleaning is necessary when asbestos readings exceed the E.P.A.’s risk-based clearance level, or when a filter becomes overloaded with fibers that prevent scientists from getting a full view of the dust sample. Mechanical difficulties prompted most of the repeat cleanings at 310 Greenwich, but there were some slightly elevated levels of asbestos found in the hallways, said Mears.

Those levels went down after subsequent cleanings, Mears said, but some tenants said they hardly felt relieved to hear that.

Diane Lapson, head of the environmental committee at I.P.N., said that she and other tenants understand that machines are not perfect and could sometimes yield inconclusive results, but a large part of their frustration is the way they’ve been treated by the E.P.A. They hoped for more open communication with the agency, and sometimes felt dismissed or talked down to by E.P.A. staff.

Responding to residents’ fears of recontamination, Ben Barry, an E.P.A. community involvement coordinator, told Downtown Express two weeks ago that asbestos levels at I.P.N. were likely very low to begin with, but if there were any asbestos fibers left after the cleaning, they would be trapped by the new carpeting put down by the management of the three-building Tribeca complex.

But Barry’s attempt to reassure the public was disputed by other E.P.A. scientists as not being based on established scientific evidence.

“There are no scientific studies that show there’s any kind of encapsulation process,” said Dr. Cate Jenkins, a veteran E.P.A. scientist who works in the hazardous waste identification division of the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, using a term that refers to the entrapment of asbestos fibers in materials such as carpeting.

Dr. Mark Maddaloni, a New York-based E.P.A. toxicologist, also noted that the relationship between carpeting and asbestos requires further study, saying of the potential risk, “That’s poorly understood.”

Prof. Arthur Langer, an environmental scientist at Brooklyn College, said that while Barry’s remarks might have been correct that the risk to I.P.N. tenants was small, the community outreach coordinator should have been more responsive.

“This person from the E.P.A., I’m sure he’s trying his best, but these people have been traumatized, you need to listen and address their concerns,” Langer said. “These folks were in a war zone, you don’t tell them it’s all right, it’s all in the carpet.”

The advocacy group’s Newman said that I.P.N. residents had every right to expect prompt notification of their common area results and full explanations of the findings, especially after all they’ve been through.

“They fought hard for this cleanup,” Newman said. “They deserve what they were asking for.”


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