Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Lower Manhattan Development Corp. chairperson Avi Schick, right, is questioned by resident Mark Scherzer at an emergency community board meeting three weeks ago, the first of three such meetings since the fatal Deutsche Bank fire Aug. 18.
L.M.D.C. agrees to reseal Deutsche after low dioxin levels are found
By Skye H. McFarlane
Safe air and a working emergency notification system topped a long list of community demands crafted this week in the wake of the deadly Deutsche Bank fire.
On Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Mary Mears said that at least one of those demands will be met “shortly.” After three weeks of community insistence and two strongly worded letters from the E.P.A., the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has agreed to reseal the Deutsche Bank building to prevent toxins from escaping into the environment, Mears said. The L.M.D.C. had previously said it would not reseal the structure until remedial repair work on the building was complete and all of the project’s regulatory agencies had hammered out a new safety plan for the site.
Mears said that the agreement to reseal the building was reached during a Wednesday meeting between E.P.A. Region 2 administrator Alan J. Steinberg, L.M.D.C. Chairperson Avi Schick and Dep. Mayors Ed Skyler and Dan Doctoroff. As of press time, the agencies’ technical experts were busy working out the specifics of exactly when and how the resealing would take place.
“This is the right step,” said Community Board 1 vice chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes when she learned of the L.M.D.C.’s change of heart. “It’s terrific that all the agencies now are working together to keep our neighborhood healthy and safe.”
At an emergency C.B. 1 meeting last Wednesday night the third such meeting in as many weeks officials, including a contrite Skyler, came with the intent of discussing a new community notification plan for the Deutsche Bank project and other potential emergencies citywide.
However, the discussion often veered into other areas, as local residents chastised the L.M.D.C. for failing to heed, or even respond to, community reservations about the Deutsche project prior to the fire. Board members and activists alike also expressed grave concerns about the L.M.D.C.’s apparent reluctance to follow the E.P.A’s recommendations for dealing with the contaminated building.
Their environmental concerns were heightened two days later, when the E.P.A. revealed that elevated levels of dioxins had been released from the building 10 days after the fire, though not at harmful levels.
“I cannot tell you how very disappointed we are that the green governor who appointed you would allow you to press for a downgrade [on environmental safety],” Kimberly Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action told Schick at the Sept. 5 meeting.
Flynn pointed to an Aug. 29 letter from Steinberg to the L.M.D.C., saying that the development corporation’s preliminary plan to change abatement procedures was “unacceptable.” The letter went on to say that the building should be resealed “as soon as practicable” to prevent contaminants from entering the neighborhood. At the time of the fire, the bottom 15 floors of the building had yet to be fully cleaned of toxins from the World Trade Center collapse and environmental activists worry that the fire may have re-contaminated some previously clean areas.
Some have questioned the use of stringent environmental protocols at the Deutsche Bank site, since the plastic sheet sealing and negative air pressure likely exacerbated the fire. Flynn called that argument a “false opposition” and said that the site should follow existing rules like proper inspections and no smoking, rather than forcing residents and construction workers to choose between physical safety and environmental health. Many buildings around the city conduct sealed asbestos abatement every day without bursting into flames, she added.
Flynn then asked the E.P.A.’s World Trade Center coordinator, Pat Evangelista, if there had been any progress in resealing the building since the letter. “I think we were quite clear in what our expectations are,” Evangelista said, looking squarely at Schick. “Unfortunately, we haven’t received a response from L.M.D.C. and we very much look forward to that.”
Schick said at the time that the building would, eventually, be resealed once some additional repair work had been done and all the regulatory agencies involved had signed off on a new plan. He insisted that any new plan for taking down the building would not lower the environmental standards. He added that the agency was “taking a very close look at” the idea of decontaminating the building first, before resuming deconstruction. Environmental activists have promoted the two-step process as a way to make the job simpler and safer for both residents and workers.
Schick said that it was natural for agencies to disagree about protocols and he didn’t feel it was productive to air those disputes in public. Schick then told reporters the next morning that “there has been full and total cooperation among the agencies” regarding the Deutsche Bank project.
Apparently, the E.P.A. did not agree with that assessment, because on Sept. 7., Steinberg sent another letter to the L.M.D.C., reiterating the need to reseal the building “as soon as possible.” The letter stated that the resealing could take place at the same time as building repairs. The letter pointed to elevated levels of dioxins recorded at the site on Aug. 27 and 28. Steinberg wrote that although the dioxins were not at dangerous levels, the readings indicated that the unsealed building still has the potential to release toxins into the environment.
Dioxin is a fairly common fire byproduct, but in high or prolonged doses, it can cause cancer, birth defects or severe skin reactions such as the disfigurement experienced by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose rivals famously poisoned him with dioxin in 2004.
“These E.P.A. letters raise serious red flags,” said C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin on Monday night, as the board’s W.T.C. Committee met to refine a resolution on a number of Deutsche Bank issues.
The seven-page document, which may be tweaked yet again at the Sept. 18 full board meeting, includes strong support for the E.P.A.’s position as well as scathing assessments of all of the public and private entities involved in the Deutsche project. Although the board’s resolutions are known for their meticulous and reasoned language, the Deutsche Bank resolution contains a number of unusually passionate passages.
“For reasons we cannot begin to understand,” begins one of the whereas paragraphs, “but that we hope will be publicly revealed through one or more thorough and competent investigations, L.M.D.C. and/or its general contractor, Bovis Corporation, in a process totally lacking in transparency, selected Galt as the demolition subcontractor for the project…completely ignoring the unequivocal and insistent warnings from CB#1 and other concerned groups and individuals in the local community regarding Galt’s lack of qualifications and other serious concerns with respect to the demolition project.”
The resolution demands that the mayor and governor put a system in place so that future C.B. 1 resolutions and letters are “not simply ignored or even treated with disdain.” It also asks that the oversight roles of the various project managers in particular the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center and subcontractor United Research Services be made clearer.
The board also asked that the L.M.D.C. update its Web site, renewnyc.com, to display all current information and relevant public documents. At the Wednesday night meeting, Schick said he would have to check with the agency’s lawyers to see if the L.M.D.C. contracts with Bovis Lend Lease and John Galt Corp., which is no longer working on the project, could be released to the public.
About 15 minutes later, Dave Newman of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health stood up at the microphone and said that not only were the contracts a matter of public record, but that NYCOSH had copies and would be happy to share them with the board.
Currently, some of the “130 Liberty St.” links on both renewnyc.com and lowermanhattan.info (the construction center’s Web site) point readers to an old page about the Deutsche Bank that says the demolition is under way and lists the project’s completion date as Sept. 2007.
The board’s resolution finishes up with a long section on community notification. Although there had been promises throughout the years that phone or e-mail chains would be established in the event of an emergency, local residents received no official notification or instructions on the day of the fire.
“We had a news crew on our rooftop. They seemed to be aware that we were there, but nobody else did,” said 109 Washington St. resident London Teeling at the Wednesday night meeting.
Skyler, who is in charge of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, defended the city’s decision not to evacuate the buildings near 130 Liberty St. during the fire. The fact that air quality readings improved quickly as the fire was contained, he said, showed that there was no real risk of breathing in lingering toxins. The city did clear the streets of pedestrians during the fire, to protect them from falling debris.
“No one is suggesting that people should go up in close proximity to a burning building and breath the air, but the tests showed that there was no risk to the larger neighborhood,” Skyler said.
Environmental advocates, including Flynn and Hughes, countered that community members would never know exactly what toxins they were exposed to during the fire, since air readings for “organics” (dioxins, PAHs and PCBs) were not taken until 11:30 p.m. on the night of the fire.
Schick said he thought the L.M.D.C. had the readings somewhere and would post them in due time, but Downtown Express has learned that there were in fact no readings earlier than 11:30 p.m., since the tests for organics were not taken as regularly as those for asbestos and particulate matter.
Even though he stood firm by the city’s decision not to evacuate the neighborhood, Skyler apologized repeatedly for not notifying the community of that decision. He admitted that the city’s inaction created undue confusion and alarm, and acknowledged that the city should have activated the local Community Emergency Response Teams, which are trained to assist the city in times of emergency.
“We did not take full advantage of all the resources we have developed over the years,” Skyler said of the CERTs.
The O.E.M. will now take responsibility for emergency notification regarding the Deutsche Bank project. Skyler said that the city was looking into a number of alert techniques from high-tech automated phone calls and e-mails to lower-tech solutions like short-range radio or sirens and would be testing a new system by the end of the year. The system would be put in place not only for 130 Liberty St., but for any localized disaster citywide, such as steam pipe explosions, floods or chemical spills.
In the meantime, the L.M.D.C. vowed to at least have an e-mail notification tree in place before demolition work on the Deutsche Bank building resumes. The development corporation also pledged to hire more staff to do community outreach to local residents. Community members urged the city to use multiple notification methods, so that technology failures would not impede the process, and to make sure that whatever message the city sends out is clear and specific.
“Tell me to evacuate; tell me to stay at home; tell me to put on a mask; tell me to go to the movies but tell me something!” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, later adding, “Given the history of this community, you have to think [about] what’s believable and acceptable.”
The topic of community notification will take center stage again during a Sept. 19 City Council hearing hosted by Downtown Councilmember Alan Gerson.
With additional reporting by Josh Rogers