Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

Downtown Express photos by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Craig Hall, president of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, was among the audience members who criticized the E.P.A.’s Downtown testing plan at the last meeting of the Expert Technical Review Panel Tuesday. Tim Oppelt, interim panel chairperson, below, was the only member to defend the plan.

Panel scientists tee off on E.P.A. plan

By Ronda Kaysen

Despite resounding criticism, the Environmental Protection Agency will move ahead with a testing and cleanup plan for Lower Manhattan that its own panelists describe as scientifically flawed, designed to find nothing and a wasted effort.

Abandoning a 21-month effort to devise a reliable method to test and clean apartments and workplaces in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn for remaining World Trade Center dust, E.P.A. decided last month to instead test only apartments in Manhattan south of Canal St. and to check no workplaces at all. Any apartments cleaned in the 2002 and 2003 E.P.A. cleanup effort will not be tested or cleaned in the new program. The agency will begin recruiting residents for the $7 million testing program early next year.

The E.P.A. also disbanded the Expert Technical Review Panel, which was established in March 2004 to advise the agency on formulating its new program. At the panel’s final meeting on Dec. 13 at the U.S. Customs House, panel members, residents, rescue workers and environmental advocates expressed dismay at the agency’s decision, harking back to the months after Sept. 11 when the agency, under the stewardship of Christine Todd Whitman, misled the public about air quality Downtown.

The panel was created in 2004 at the behest of Senator Hillary Clinton after the E.P.A. Inspector General’s report found serious flaws with the original cleanup. Critics worry that dust lingering in apartments, workplaces and building HVAC systems might continue to contaminate indoor spaces in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, leading to potential health risks to residents and workers.

“I was so naively optimistic to think we might actually get anything” from the E.P.A. testing program, said a teary-eyed Catherine McVay Hughes, the community liaison to the expert panel and chairperson of the Community Board 1 World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee, shortly before the meeting. “I thought something good might come out of this.”

E.P.A. backed away from the testing plan they released in June after a peer review panel found the plan flawed. Peer reviewers voiced doubts that slag wool, an insulating material found in the Trade Center, would be an effective material to use for identifying a signature to isolate W.T.C. dust from typical, urban dust. Rather than revise the testing methods, E.P.A. scrapped its entire plan and opted for a scaled back alternative that resembles the lambasted 2002-2003 cleanup effort.

Panelists leveled fierce attacks against the agency, accusing the E.P.A. of ignoring its advice and abandoning science in favor of expediency. “I really feel like I’ve wasted my time in these past two years on this panel,” said Jeanne Stellman, deputy head of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University.

“We’re back to square one with a proposed approach that we’ve consistently rejected,” said Morton Lippmann, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University. “The results will be completely un-interpretable. I can’t say anything positive in even bothering to discuss this plan… E.P.A. appears to want to simply spend money and walk away.”

Lippmann suggested the E.P.A. return the $7 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is funding the program, “to find some useful work for it, if they can.”

“The problem with the current plan is not just the absence of science, but the extraordinary likelihood of failure,” said Steven Markowitz, director of the Center of Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College. “What we’re left with is policy based on no science.”

Panelists voiced doubts that anyone would participate in the testing program and refused to endorse it. “I can’t in good conscience tell my neighbors to participate in this,” said Marc Wilkenfeld, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University.

At times, panelists all but held back the audience from unleashing their wrath on the agency. Audience members, often heckling E.P.A., held signs reading: “What about Chinatown?”, “Cleanup! Not Cover Up!” and “E.P.A. to Workers: Drop Dead!”

Once the public was given the floor, the criticism lobbed against E.P.A. was fierce and unyielding. “The exclusion of Chinatown is racist,” blasted Jeanie Chin, co-founder of the Civic Center Residents Coalition. “Shame on you and shame on your sham science.”

“The E.P.A.’s credibility is once again shattered,” said Craig Hall, a Battery Park City resident and president of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition. “Stop the charade and give New York City scientifically sound testing.”

“I remember the fires that burned and yet the E.P.A. says my neighborhood has no World Trade Center dust,” said Maria Muentes, a case manager for University Settlement whose five-year-old daughter suffers from asthma. Muentes implored the agency to “commit to a meaningful plan.”

E. Timothy Oppelt, interim panel chairperson and the only E.P.A. employee on the panel, balked at claims that E.P.A.’s decision was politically motivated.

“You may disagree with the choice that we’ve made, but it bothers me that [you would say] this is some sort of cover-up or scam. That’s nonsense, we’re career people.” Oppelt, a 30-year E.P.A. veteran, will retire from the agency at the end of the year.

Panelists said E.P.A. gave up too easily and could have made adjustments to the plan to satisfy the peer review’s criticisms. “To keep characterizing the review so negatively is wrong,” said Greg Meeker, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

A signature would help health officials know for certain the extent to which the dust plume that followed the collapse of the Trade Towers contaminated New York.

E.P.A. eventually ceded on one point and agreed to reconsider testing for a signature in the dust. “Maybe we got it wrong with the notion of throwing away the signature,” said Oppelt.

Oppelt refused, however, to entertain requests to test workplaces, HVAC systems, previously cleaned apartments or a larger swath of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Last week, Senator Clinton and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler called for a Government Accountability Office investigation of E.P.A.

“We are disappointed, we are frustrated and we are outraged,” said Clinton at a Dec. 9 press conference. “New Yorkers deserve to know whether we have any remaining health risks… This is negligent, this is reckless disregard of people’s health.”

When asked about the G.A.O. investigation, Oppelt told Downtown Express, “We’re happy to work with anyone who wants to scrutinize our work.”



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