Volume 16 • Issue 47 | April 16-22, 2004



E.P.A. watchdog panel looks to expand testing

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Experts charged with reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the World Trade Center collapse have recommended broader testing to determine what, if any, contamination remains from the disaster.

In its second public meeting on April 12, the 17-member panel of government and independent experts moved away from its initial plan to retest only those Lower Manhattan apartments that were originally cleaned as part of the E.P.A. voluntary residential cleanup program. Instead, panelists recommended that the E.P.A. sample workplaces and buildings outside the agency’s prior boundary of Canal, Pike and Allen Sts. Panelists also discussed testing for toxins other than asbestos, the only substance sampled in the majority of apartments the E.P.A. cleaned.

“This is a very important development,” said Kimberly Flynn, a spokesperson for 9/11 Environmental Action, a community group. “This is something we didn’t necessarily anticipate.”

The panel, formed largely to restore public trust in the E.P.A. response to 9/11, resulted from negotiations among Senator Hillary Clinton, the E.P.A. and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Many lost faith in the E.P.A. after a report by the agency’s independent inspector general judged the E.P.A. acted without enough evidence when it declared the air Downtown safe to breathe one week after 9/11.

In addition, critics have called the agency’s cleanup program, which began in June of 2002 and ended last year, poorly designed and executed. While the program found few cases of asbestos levels exceeding the E.P.A. benchmark — 6 percent of apartments that received “aggressive” testing, where a leaf blower agitated settled dust, were found to have elevated asbestos levels, compared with only 0.5 percent of apartments that received “modified aggressive” testing—critics have questioned the methodology that generated the results.

At its first public meeting on March 31, the panel discussed testing already cleaned apartments to determine whether recontamination had occurred through building ventilation systems or other means. But two weeks later, panel members shifted towards screening for 9/11-related toxins in general, regardless of whether they resulted from recontamination.

One reason for the change in focus was the challenge of obtaining enough sample data to ensure statistically valid recontamination results, said Dr. Paul Gilman, chairperson of the panel and assistant administrator for research and development at the E.P.A. Another reason, one panelist told Downtown Express after the meeting, was simply because 9/11-related toxins pose concerns regardless of whether they resulted from recontamination or from the original event.

Panelists also found inadequate 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. They debated which contaminants should be included in the retesting program, set to begin this summer.

“When we have proof it’s not in someone’s system, we should move on,” said David Prezant, a panel member who is also deputy chief medical officer with the New York Fire Department. For example, Prezant said, high levels of lead have not been found in first responders’ blood, so lead should not be included in the retesting.

Panelists and the public alike cheered the new direction taken at last Monday’s meeting.

“I’m hopeful we can implement science-based testing efforts to broaden the geographical scope of the testing and look for a suite of possible contaminations so that we can finally know exactly what we are or are not dealing with in Lower Manhattan,” said Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, who serves on the panel.

The E.P.A. is not obligated to follow the panel’s recommendations, but given the group’s mandate of bolstering public trust in the agency it is likely the E.P.A. will adopt its suggestions to the extent possible within budgetary constraints. At the panel’s next meeting, scheduled for May 24, members will further discuss their recommendations for the retesting program, in terms of specific contaminants and buildings to be included.

At two public sessions during the April 12 meeting, community members let the panel know they were following its every move. Kelly Colangelo, a resident of 41 River Terrace in Battery Park City, said she had taken a vacation day off work in order to attend the meeting.

Colangelo told panelists they must work hard to earn the public’s respect: “I think careful planning and clear communication are essential.”

Elizabeth@DowntownExpress.com

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