Volume 18 • Issue 7 | July 8-14, 2005

E.P.A.’s new cleanup plan knocked

By Ronda Kaysen

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to sample buildings in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn for lingering dust from the World Trade Center disaster. But if employees want to see their workplaces sampled or cleaned and either their employer or building owner disagrees, the agency will not champion their cause. Workplaces are not E.P.A.’s domain, the agency insists in a near-final draft of its plan released last week.

E.P.A. will sample 150 buildings south of Houston St. and in parts of Brooklyn to determine to what extent the area remains contaminated from the toxic plume that followed the collapse of the W.T.C. towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The sampling plan will determine whether or not an area-wide cleanup plan will follow.

Property owners – not the tenants or workers who may live or work there – will have the opportunity to volunteer their buildings for the sampling program, if the E.P.A. selects them. In cases where a building or unit owner declines the E.P.A.’s offer, individual residents can turn to E.P.A. for assistance.

But employers and workers will have to turn to another government agency – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has played no role in the 16-month process to devise a sampling plan and has no sampling plan of its own – for assistance.

“Workers are completely cut out of this current plan,” said Micki Siegel de Hernandez, health and safety director for Communications Workers of America District 1 and the alternate community liaison to the E.P.A. Expert Technical Review Panel, which was created in 2004 to address residual contamination concerns from 9/11. “E.P.A. is abrogating any responsibility and saying its OSHA’s responsibility.”

The W.T.C. lies at the western edge of the Financial District – the city’s oldest business district – and is teeming with workplaces. Despite the abundance of workers in the affected area, employees and their workplaces are the domain of OSHA, not an environmental agency, E.P.A. insists, and it is OSHA’s responsibility to make sure workplaces are clean, safe and contaminant-free.

“OSHA is the agency that has the authority to deal with hazard in the workplace issues,” said Michael Brown, an E.P.A. spokesperson. “What you’re getting is pressure from community people who think that every space of every kind of building ought to be sampled, tested and cleaned up and that’s just not what we’re doing. Period.”

OSHA, a division of the Dept. of Labor, responds to employee concerns on a regular basis. It does not, however, sample neighborhoods for widespread environmental contamination. “That’s E.P.A.’s role,” said John Chavez, an OSHA spokesperson.

“Any worker or groups of workers who feel that they are being exposed to unsafe or unhealthful working conditions always have a right to file a complaint with OSHA and OSHA would respond to such complaints,” he added. “OSHA would just continue its traditional workplace safety and health enforcement and that involves worksite inspections.”

Workers are offered an additional bureaucratic outlet – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – another government agency where they can request an evaluation “of possible health hazards associated with a job or workplace,” according to the plan.

Critics say the nature of the selection process itself has created a quagmire, forcing E.P.A. to choose between employees and property owners. “E.P.A. is caught up in an essential dilemma between two positions that they’ve taken that conflict with each other,” Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist for New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “E.P.A. made a commitment early on that places of business will be included. On the other hand they’re sticking to a policy of voluntary commitment, which is likely to empower employers and disenfranchise workers.”

One group of workers, those who work in areas deemed “inaccessible” by the E.P.A., will find itself excluded from an E.P.A. cleanup, regardless of the levels of contamination the agency finds in the sampling program.

The plan differentiates between “accessible” and “inaccessible” areas. Areas behind or underneath rarely moved objects, in corners of closets and above suspended ceilings are considered inaccessible and even the presence of contamination will not trigger a cleanup by the E.P.A.

Anyone who works in those areas – custodians, plumbers, electricians, elevator mechanics – will not see their workplaces cleaned of contaminants, no matter the extent. Instead, the E.P.A. suggests they contact OSHA.

“Essentially workplaces will be ignored,” said de Hernandez, whose union, C.W.A., represents many Downtown workers. “You could have any amount of asbestos in those areas and it wouldn’t trigger a cleaning. Workers were exposed to those areas, you can’t ignore them.”

The final sampling plan will be released at the end of July, following a public panel meeting held on Tuesday, July 12 at 9 a.m. at St. John’s University, 101 Murray St., Room 123.

The plan can be viewed at http:// www.epa.gov/wtc/panel/

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com

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