Volume 18 • Issue 44 | March 17 - 23, 2006

Downtown Express file photo by Ramin Talaie

Attorney Joel Kupferman, far right, joined an environmental demonstration at Federal Hall on Wall St. before the start of the Republican National Convention in 2004.

These greens are still pressing the 9/11 environmental fight

By Ronda Kaysen

A tall man with a booming voice and a large pile of papers in his arms trotted around the Committee Room at City Hall before a hearing on the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. “Are you are reporter?” he asked one woman seated quietly.
“No,” she replied.

He was not deterred. “I’m testifying today, would you like a copy of my testimony anyway?” He thrust a sheet of paper toward her and repeated the question to the man seated behind her.

Downtown Express file photo by Elisabeth Robert
Jenna Orkin, left, a former Stuyvesant parent, and others taped their mouths at a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation meeting last year.
The Committee Room is a small, cramped chamber with a few rows of uncomfortable, folding wooden chairs where the public can sit. At this particular City Council hearing last month, every seat was taken and people crowded together at the edges.

Many of the audience members — including the one distributing copies of his testimony — are not new to these hearings. In the four and a half years since 9/11, they have attended countless City Council hearings, community board meetings, press conferences and Environmental Protection Agency panel meetings. Made up of a core group of about a dozen people, they give testimony, send mass e-mails, write letters and pepper officials with unending questions. They are often the loud and outspoken members of the audience, seated together and heckling government officials and interrupting hearings with duct-taped mouths and hand-made signs.

They are residents, workers, union leaders and environmentalists determined to see Lower Manhattan properly cleaned, tested and protected from the World Trade Center dust that blew through the city on Sept. 11. And four and a half years after the dust settled, they’re intensity has only increased.

“They are incredibly committed and dedicated individuals,” said New York State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who worked closely with the activists while she was an aide to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler. “The activists, together with the elected officials, have been such a dynamic team. I’m sure the E.P.A. can’t stand it because they don’t let any untruths lie.”

Early on, public hearings about Downtown were overflowing with concerned residents and workers, but as the urgency of 9/11 has faded over the years, many people have moved on to other issues. But a handful of activists remain steadfastly dedicated to the cause.

All of the activists Downtown Express spoke with for this story spoke of long hours spent toiling to get Lower Manhattan tested and cleaned and expected that they would continue to work on this for years to come. Many volunteer fulltime and others have seen their job descriptions transform entirely since 9/11 so that the bulk of their work now deals with the aftermath of the disaster. “It’s become a second job for me,” said Micki Siegel de Hernandez, director of health and safety for the Communications Workers of America District 1. “I can’t remember when a day has gone by where there hasn’t been something that I haven’t worked on that is 9/11 related… What I can’t do in the day, I do on my own time.”

Many of the activists insist that without their ongoing commitment, many of the neighborhood’s successes never would have materialized. Because of their work, they say, a health registry for workers and residents was created. The former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St., a 40-story, 9/11-contaminated building, is being dismantled in a painstaking fashion thanks to the demands of residents and workers. Air monitors have been erected around Downtown to make sure the new construction doesn’t re-contaminate the air.

“The coalition has done the best that anyone could do under the current administration,” said Kimberly Flynn, the 49-year-old co-coordinator of 9/11 Environmental Action, an advocacy group she co-founded in April 2002.

At certain times, coalition members’ outrage appears disproportionate to the issue at hand. At a Lower Manhattan Development Corp. hearing last year about the demolition of 130 Liberty St., coalition members arrived with blue duct tape covering their mouths and signs that said the “L.M.D.C. wants to silence the Lower Manhattan community.” They were not protesting air quality or safety risks. Instead, they disapproved of how L.M.D.C. structured the meeting. Because of their protests and heckling, the meeting ground to a halt. Some audience members who live Downtown criticized the protesters — not the L.M.D.C. — for how the meeting degenerated and described the coalition’s efforts as fruitless and domineering, preventing them from learning valuable information.

But coalition members insist that the public is well informed because of their efforts, not despite them. “The level of oversight and protection is certainly greater than what it would’ve been without public protest and involvement,” said David Newman, 55, an industrial hygienist for New York Committee for Occupational Health, an advocacy group.

Flynn, a dramaturge who worked with Tony Kushner and George C. Wolfe to develop the Tony Award-winning play by Anna Deavere Smith, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” got her activist stripes during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York. “I was fortunate to be around for the glory days of ACT UP,” she said. Shortly before 9/11, she began fighting the Giuliani administration on its West Nile Virus spraying policy. When the Twin Towers came crashing down on Sept. 11, she was already tapped into an activist network steered by environmental lawyer Joel Kupferman.

A Yorktown resident, Flynn says she now works 40 hours a week, without pay, on 9/11-related work and sees no end to the workload in sight. “Basically, we’re looking at a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We have to build a coalition that can go the distance.” 9/11 Environmental Action is now a non-profit organization and is currently applying for grant funding.

Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, was one of the first people to raise questions about the toxins in the Trade Center dust. Kupferman, 50, has a shock of wild white hair and appears often at public hearings, urgently taking notes and speaking in long, impassioned diatribes.

Within a week of the Trade Center disaster, Kupferman collected dust samples from ground zero and sent them out for testing. He filed Freedom of Information Law requests with the E.P.A. He stood near the pit handing out flyers to workers on the bucket brigade about how they could protect themselves. Eventually, he represented the firefighters union.

“For a while we were the lone voices in the wilderness,” he said. He posted the FOIL documents on his Web site and was soon receiving 1,000 hits a day. “We were the hot spot for a while.”

Now Kupferman is co-counsel on a class action lawsuit by the residents of Lower Manhattan against the E.P.A. and former E.P.A. Administrator Christine Todd Whitman about statements made in the aftermath of 9/11. The environmental problems Downtown are not resolved yet, he said, and still require attention and commitment. “We believe that people are being exposed today and government is failing to abate that exposure,” he said.

Craig Hall, 37, lived on Battery Place in Battery Park City with his wife and three children on 9/11. Five days after the attack, he was let back into his apartment for five minutes to gather essentials. “Everything was gray, there was dust to the back of the room,” he said. Hall, who works in I.T. for an investment bank, has a background in physics and decided to send the dust out to be sampled. It contained asbestos. His landlord, however, refused to clean the apartment or public spaces because of E.P.A. assurances.

“We were told by E.P.A. and by the health people that everything was safe and you should mop the dust up with a wet rag,” said Hall. “Learning what we know now, that was crazy.”

Hall and his wife are both from England and considered moving back to the United Kingdom, but instead moved their family to another Battery Park City apartment on Rector Place that had been properly cleaned. Hall, a blond affable man who considers himself more community advocate than environmental activist, began talking with other residents about problems with their landlords. Eventually, he helped connect the various tenant associations Downtown into a single entity — the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, which reaches 30,000 residents, he said.

Their new apartment is clean and the fires at the site have long since stopped burning, yet Hall continues to attend hearings when he can and sends regular e-mail blasts to his members. “We need the scientific testing,” he said. He hopes that a recent court ruling that held Whitman and the E.P.A. accountable for misstatements made after 9/11 will eventually lead to a resolution. “I’m hoping this court case is going to blow the lid off the case and finally the truth is going to come out.”

Jo Polett, a soft-spoken woman of 54, had never been politically active before 9/11. When she returned to her Tribeca apartment after the attacks, it appeared clean to her. “It just didn’t occur to me to worry,” she said. “I didn’t think about it.”

But she soon began developing pulmonary and respiratory problems. Her doctor told her in November 2001 that she needed to leave the neighborhood and a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency told her that her apartment was contaminated. She did not return to her Tribeca apartment until the summer of 2003. The desire to go home — she said that if she moved, she would not be able to afford another apartment in Manhattan — motivated Polett to learn about environmental science. “I didn’t want to be living in a hotel,” she said, “so I needed the apartment cleaned, but I also needed the ventilation cleaned.”

Now volunteering fulltime for 9/11-related work, she spends her days scouring scientific reports for clues about what the various agencies knew and when they knew it and whether their policies are adequate. Her anger at the government is palpable. “From the beginning the government tried to erase information, erase facts,” she said. “If I’m living in a country with a government that lies to the public about matters affecting their health, that’s dangerous for everybody.”

The E.P.A. maintains that it did not intentionally mislead the public and that its testing and cleanup efforts are adequate.
The agency declined to comment for this story.

In April 2002, various groups of residents and workers came together to voice their frustrations at a summit meeting at Pace University. Flynn and several others formed 9/11 Environmental Action out of that meeting, and what had been a disparate smattering of individuals trying to figure out what was going on with their neighborhood became an organized effort.

“There have been similar labor-community efforts [in other parts of the country,] but in terms of persistence and in terms of the equality of participation, I’m not aware of anything like this,” said Newman.

Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of the Community Board 1 World Trade Center Committee, embodies the bridge between worker safety and community advocates. A civil engineer with degrees from Princeton and Wharton School, Hughes, 45, lives one block east of the World Trade Center with her husband and two sons. Early in her career she built slurry walls in New Jersey. “I was a hard hat,” she said. Later, while working for the New York Public Interest Research Group, she did advocacy work about lead poisoning in children. “Everything that I had learned has led me to this,” she said.
At the committee meetings she chairs, Hughes grills government officials about construction techniques and air monitoring systems. Many officials respond initially with surprise that a community board member would know the intricate details of slurry walls. “Everybody comes in with a different bias. People make assumptions and a lot of people come in with faulty assumptions,” she said. But with her efforts, the community board has been successful in working with the L.M.D.C. to safely dismantle 130 Liberty St. and the Borough of Manhattan Community College to do the same for the contaminated Fiterman Hall.

During the months immediately following the disaster, Hughes and her family considered not returning to Lower Manhattan. “Who wouldn’t think about moving out of a neighborhood that had been targeted by terrorists?” she said. But in the end, they did return, and Hughes now volunteers fulltime to ensure the environmental safety of the neighborhood. “I wanted to rebuild our neighborhood and make it better than it was before.”


Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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