Volume 19 Issue 36 | January 19 - 25, 2007

Council and community members blast E.P.A. cleanup plan

By Skye H. McFarlane

Local politicians and advocacy groups gave the Environmental Protection Agency an “A” for attendance but failing marks in most other categories when representatives from the agency testified before the City Council last week.

At the Jan. 11 hearing, which explored the E.P.A.’s latest “test and clean” program, the agency’s testimony left many audience members visibly fuming. Although many speakers commended the E.P.A. for voluntarily coming in to answer the community’s questions (the agency spurned a similar hearing in 2005), a number of witnesses ditched their prepared remarks to deliver heated off-the-cuff rebuttals to the E.P.A.’s plan.

“It was nearly impossible to sit through this testimony,” Community Board 1 Chairperson Julie Menin told the council, later adding, “This is the agency that put our health in jeopardy and now to dither around with ‘markers’ and other such nonsense is offensive.…As a former practicing lawyer, I have to say that I’ve never seen such gross and negligent conduct by a government agency.”

Menin and others attacked the E.P.A.’s program for a laundry list of reasons, asserting that the current plan to test for and clean up World Trade Center toxins is arbitrary, too limited, scientifically flawed and grossly under-funded.

The current program was announced on Dec. 6, 2006. It is the third cleanup plan the E.P.A. has put forward since 9/11. Registration for the program began Jan. 16 and will continue until March 30, after which the testing would commence. Under the plan, residents or building owners south of Canal St. and west of Allen and Pike Sts. in Lower Manhattan are eligible to have the air and dust in their spaces tested for four toxic substances from the World Trade Center collapse — asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (fire byproducts), lead and man-made vitreous fibers (fiberglass and its cousins). The air will be tested for asbestos and fiberglass while the dust will be tested for all four toxins. If the toxins in a space exceed the E.P.A.’s recommended levels, the resident or building owner can choose to have the space cleaned by E.P.A. contractors. However, because the program has a limited $7 million budget, the E.P.A.’s Web site warns that spaces will be prioritized based on their proximity to ground zero and that funding may run out before every registered space can be tested.

Alan Steinberg, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator, and Pat Evangelista, the agency’s World Trade Center coordinator, explained at the hearing that the limited budget and geographic area for the search stemmed from the E.P.A.’s inability to establish a chemical signature, or marker, for World Trade Center dust. Without the ability to determine whether a space had been affected by the W.T.C. toxins, they said, the E.P.A. could only test the areas “most affected” by the dust. They further stressed that the risk of exposure, five years after the attacks, is very low and that the current testing is intended to reassure residents that their spaces are safe.

That assertion prompted Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan, to ask whether the E.P.A.’s plan was a scientific endeavor or whether it was merely political, to which Steinberg responded, “When you are responsive to the needs of the community, I wouldn’t call that political. I’d call that good governance.”

Community members responded angrily, saying that the E.P.A. continues to promote an inadequate plan despite repeated objections from environmental groups, local politicians, residents and the E.P.A.’s own former Inspector General and Expert Technical Review Panel. In 2005, a plan similar to the current one was rejected by the Expert Panel, which was then disbanded. Prior to that, in 2002-03, the E.P.A. cleaned 4,167 residences in 144 buildings and then tested them for toxins, primarily asbestos. A low (one percent) rate of excess toxins during those tests has been the E.P.A.’s primary evidence that the risk of dust exposure in Lower Manhattan is low or non-existent.

“Five years have gone by. It’s inconceivable that people haven’t cleaned their spaces at all,” said Evangelista, adding that normal cleaning techniques such as vacuuming and wet mopping can be effective in removing the contaminants in question.

Community speakers assailed these arguments, saying that contamination is likely to be trapped in hard-to-access spaces like HVAC systems, sub-ceilings and the insides of T.V.s and computers, none of which the E.P.A. will test. Though the E.P.A. extolled the power of “normal cleaning,” the agency’s own pamphlet for the program states that the E.P.A. cleans using HEPA vacuums, since regular vacuums can recirculate small toxic particles.

Many speakers were also baffled by the agency’s geographic boundaries, and it’s assertion that a W.T.C. marker would be needed to test beyond Lower Manhattan. Presumably, the marker would prove that the contamination in question came from the World Trade Center and not pre-existing asbestos or lead paint. But several speakers said that the dust and smoke that hung for months over New York — including Chinatown and northern Brooklyn — should be proof enough of the impact and that the E.P.A. should clean up the toxins no matter how they got there.

“There’s poison on the ground and it’s not your fault it’s there. Al Qaeda put it there,” Councilmember David Yassky, who represents parts of Brooklyn, told the E.P.A. officials. “But it is our fault, and it’s your fault, the government’s fault, that nothing was done to get rid of it.”

Speakers also railed against the program’s rules for commercial and institutional spaces, which can only be tested if a building owner requests it — thus leaving individual students and office workers at the mercy of their supervisors and landlords.

“The E.P.A., once again, excludes workplaces in Lower Manhattan, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence that workplaces are any less likely to be contaminated than residences,” Joel Shufro, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told the council.

In addition to scathing testimony, local politicians and advocacy groups have written dozens of letters, resolutions and press releases stating their objections to the E.P.A.’s program — some calling it a cover-up of the E.P.A.’s failure to accurately inform residents or clean up dangerous substances immediately after 9/11. Community Board 1 in December called on the E.P.A. to withdraw its current plan and work with the community to draft a “scientifically sound” proposal. Similar resolutions are in the works at C. B. 2, C.B. 3 and the City Council. But as several speakers pointed out, it will likely take action on the federal level to change the E.P.A.’s course.

“We need answers before we can take action,” said Kimberly Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action, calling on Congress to hold oversight hearings on the E.P.A.’s plan. “Disaster response is a federal responsibility…but the E.P.A. has refused to apply its world-renowned expertise to this situation.”

With a congressional response in mind, Gerson and Yassky sent a letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Hillary Clinton, professing their support for action at the federal level. Nadler had already sent a strongly worded statement to the council hearing, demanding a more comprehensive testing plan, and on Jan. 16, Clinton, too, released a statement denouncing the E.P.A.’s program.

“I plan to use my chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health to continue to press for a more expansive test and clean program in the new Congress,” Clinton said in the statement.

Although forms and information about the test and clean program are available to read on the E.P.A.’s Web site, residents and building owners can only apply through the mail. Those interested in having their spaces cleaned can call 1-888-747-7725 to have registration materials sent to them.

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