Volume 16 • Issue 44 | April 2 - 8, 2004

E.P.A. panel debates how to recheck cleanup

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

Caption: U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, left, announced a proposed bill on Monday which would expand the post-9/11 health screenings to residents who were living near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency’s W.T.C. cleanup review panel met for the first time.

At its first meeting, a panel charged with reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of Downtown apartments after the World Trade Center collapse debated retesting guidelines that would foster public confidence in the process.

The government formed the panel in part to restore the public’s trust in the E.P.A. after it was badly shaken by reports that the agency acted prematurely when it declared Downtown air safe to breathe one week after the trade center disaster. While no conclusions were reached at their March 31 meeting, panel members were mindful of their mandate as they discussed how many Lower Manhattan apartments should be retested for recontamination.

Some advocated the broadest possible scope of the retesting, which will measure the effectiveness of the E.P.A.’s voluntary cleanup program by revisiting some of the 4, 167 apartments originally tested and scrubbed.

“We have this golden opportunity and it would be a shame not to take complete advantage of it,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, a member of Community Board 1 who serves as the panel’s community liaison, after the meeting.

Hughes said that Downtowners would participate in the retesting program only if they judge it to be representative. Another panelist argued that without extensive sampling, the results would be suspect. But some scientists on the panel countered that the retesting must be directly comparable to the previous tests in order to maintain accuracy.

Members of the public who attended the forum called for a broad and aggressive retesting program. David Stanke, a resident of 114 Liberty St. across from the trade center site, said parts of his building were cleared by the E.P.A. and then found to be contaminated in a private cleanup. He suggested providing testers with incentives to unearth contaminants.

“I can walk into any building and sample not to find,” Stanke said after the hearing.

The panelists, a mixture of government and non-government experts, were told not to consider costs when designing the retesting program. But the price tag will ultimately limit the program’s scope, E.P.A. officials acknowledged.

In one cost-cutting measure, the E.P.A. will not conduct background tests in other parts of the city to determine how much asbestos and other toxins can be found in the area under normal circumstances, said Matt Lorber of the E.P.A.

Apartments in buildings with shared ventilations systems will be the focus of the retesting program, E.P.A. officials said. Out of the 4,167 apartments tested, 472 had central HVAC systems, where air is circulated among apartments and building common areas. Another 2,396 apartments had what officials described as “partial central HVAC systems,” where air is circulated among common areas but not among individual apartments.

The E.P.A. cleanup program, which began in 2002 and ended last year, was voluntary. While only a small fraction of apartments were found to have elevated levels of asbestos — 6 percent for those apartments that received aggressive testing, and 0.5 percent of apartments that received moderate testing—many residents feared that cleaned apartments could be re-contaminated by toxins tracked or blown in from uncleaned common areas or apartments.

Panelists must also evaluate the E.P.A.’s working assumption that cleaning for asbestos would adequately remove other potentially dangerous toxins such as lead, even if workers did not test for other contaminants in most homes.

Some panelists voiced doubts about whether their mission will succeed, given cost and other constraints, including enticing enough residents to participate in the retesting program.

“I’m not sure I’m confident this exercise will end up meeting the goals you have for it, because of all the concerns we’ve addressed,” said Morton Lippmann of the New York University School of Medicine.

The panel will hold its next public meeting on April 12. Members of the public are invited to attend and speak during the public sessions.



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