Volume 18 • Issue 29 | December 2 - 8, 2005

E.P.A. changes plan — Clinton, Dowtowners fume

By Ronda Kaysen

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Sen. Clinton in Battery Park City, hours before the E.P.A. announced its plan to dissolve the environmental panel she helped create. The contaminated Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St. is behind her.
The Environmental Protection Agency abandoned a plan to test and clean apartments and offices in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn this week, instead limiting its efforts to residences and commercial spaces south of Canal St. and excluding workplaces altogether.

The agency’s decision dismisses 20 months of input from scientists, environmentalists, health experts and community members who struggled—often clashing with E.P.A.— to find a way to test Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn for remaining World Trade Center disaster contamination.

The announcement was met with outrage from Senator Hillary Clinton, who helped establish the program, and the scientists, health experts and community members who advised E.P.A.

Last June, the E.P.A. unveiled its plan to test 150 buildings below Houston St. and in parts of Brooklyn for a “signature” in dust that would differentiate W.T.C. dust from regular urban pollutants. But a peer review panel rejected the idea last month, declaring, “E.P.A. has not made the case that its proposed analytical method can reliably discriminate background dust from dust contaminated with W.T.C. residue.”

Peer reviewers and members of the Expert Technical Review Panel, which was created in 2004 to advise E.P.A. on the cleanup, suggested additional research and field studies. But declaring the issue exhausted, E. Timothy Oppelt, the interim panel chairperson, wrote in a letter to panelists this week, “We do not believe that the probability of success of these activities is sufficient to warrant diversion of limited resources available for the sampling and cleanup effort. In addition, 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.”

Under the $7 million program, which will begin early next year, residences and public areas in commercial spaces below Canal St. and west of Pike and Allen Sts. can volunteer to be tested. If contamination levels exceed an E.P.A. threshold, E.P.A. will clean the space for free.

There are eligibility restrictions. Buildings that were cleaned in the original 2002 and 2003 E.P.A. cleanup program are excluded from this new round of cleaning despite the fact that the panel was created in response to the knocks against the original effort, which was criticized by some for being disorganized and ineffective. Also, buildings slated for demolition and those built or renovated after 9/11 are ineligible for program.

“If you live directly across from the World Trade Center site and you’re likely to have recontamination, you will not qualify for the new E.P.A. plan,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, community liaison to the panel. “That is a shortcoming.”

Hughes, a Financial District resident, declined to have her apartment cleaned during the original E.P.A. cleanup because of “doubts with the original plan.” She has not decided if she will participate in this round either. “I have too many unanswered questions,” she said.

E.P.A. insists there is no scientific basis for cleaning apartments that have been cleaned before or for extending the bounderies. “I don’t feel that we can go beyond what the science can tell us,” Oppelt said in a telephone interview.

For the panelists who dedicated close to two years of their time to the effort, E.P.A.’s decision comes as a disappointment. “They didn’t take our advice,” said panelist Morton Lippmann, a professor of environmental medicine at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Medicine at New York University. “It was wasted effort. We were volunteering our time and effort and our advice was ignored.”

By not following the advice of a panel of scientists, environmentalists and health officials, E.P.A. has devised an ineffectual program, say critics. “Doing what they’re doing, the data will be uninterruptible,” said Lippmann.

The program will test units for asbestos, man-made vitreous fiber, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and clean if levels exceed an E.P.A. threshold. Commercial property owners can volunteer communal spaces and their ventilation systems for testing and cleanup, as well. No office spaces will be tested.

In what came as a body blow to those close to the cleanup effort, the agency also announced its decision to dismantle the panel.

Clinton also delayed the confirmation of E.P.A. administrator nominee Michael Leavitt until the agency agreed to establish a panel and revisit the cleanup effort. Leavitt, who was ultimately appointed to the post, is now head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The plan ignores many of the recommendations made by the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel,” Clinton said in a statement, calling the decision to disband the panel “unacceptable.” “The panel has not even begun to meet its mandate to identify unmet public health needs and recommend any steps to further minimize the risks associated with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.  I will be fighting to ensure that the panel completes this important task.”

The agency’s latest move dredged up longstanding anger toward the agency from the community about its commitment to the health of New Yorkers. Residents and workers sued the agency in 2004, claiming E.P.A. failed in its duty to protect citizens from the environmental fallout of 9/11.

“It’s another sellout in a whole string of sellouts. They [the E.P.A.] obviously don’t care about the health of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn residents,” Nadler said in a telephone interview.

“Holy Moses!” said Suzanne Mattei, New York City executive of the Sierra Club. “It’s absolutely devastating. It means that we’re losing our expert oversight of what E.P.A. is doing and we’re losing our public forum for raising concerns. It’s a shut down. That’s what it is pure and simple.”

E.P.A. insists as it moves into the testing and cleanup phase of the process, an expert panel is no longer necessary.

“As we get into implementation the need for technical input is going to be substantially diminished,” said Oppelt. The staff at the regional office is “anxious to interact with the local communities.”

The agency’s decision comes less than a week after Clinton and Nadler sent E.P.A. administrator Stephen Johnson a joint letter cosigned by several panelists expressing their disappointment with the pace of the cleanup plan.

“We are dismayed by this lack of E.P.A. focus,” the letter read, adding that the “development plan has drifted.” The panel has met only twice since February, and the most recent panel meeting was last July.

Oppelt insists the infrequent meetings and plodding pace are not signs of a lagging program. “We’ve worked very hard,” he said. “E.P.A. has put in an immense number of hours into this… We’ve taken it very seriously.”

The final panel meeting is slated for December 13 in the auditorium of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House at One Bowling Green, at 9:00 a.m.

Activist groups are already preparing for it. One group, 9/11 Environmental Action, sent out a press release within hours of E.P.A.’s announcement “calling on every organization and individual with a stake in protecting the residents and workers of Lower Manhattan from the 9/11 hazards that EPA left behind, to come to the next WTC Community-Labor Coalition meeting to plan the fight-back.”

“They [E.P.A.] want to sweep this under the rug along with all the dust and all the poisons and all the asbestos,” said Nadler. “The problem of course is this will come out of the rug as soon as it’s shaken and our job is to shake the rug.”


Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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