E.P.A. admits to ‘mistakes’ after 9/11

By Elizabeth O’Brien

U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler called on the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a thorough cleaning of residences and workplaces affected by dust from the World Trade Center collapse after an independent report recommended that the agency take further action against indoor contamination. The agency criticized the report, but acknowledged unspecified “mistakes.”

The E.P.A.’s inspector general released a report this month that said that concerns remained regarding indoor toxic dust. In addition, the report revealed that the White House influenced what the agency told the public about air safety soon after the attacks of Sept.11, 2001. The agency “did not have sufficient data and analyses” to announce one week following the disaster that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe, the report concluded.

“The E.P.A. has treated residents of Lower Manhattan with contempt and with total disregard for their lives and safety,” Nadler said at a Saturday news conference.

Nadler requested Congressional hearings on the E.P.A. response to the trade center disaster, as well as a federal Department of Justice investigation to determine possible criminal negligence on the agency’s part.

Sen. Hillary Clinton is expected to join Nadler Aug. 26 at City Hall to call for Senate hearings on the matter. Last August, the E.P.A. began a program of voluntary asbestos testing and cleanup of residences south of Canal, Pike, and Allen Sts. in Manhattan. As of Aug. 7, 4,161 apartments had been cleaned and tested. The agency did not include schools or offices in its cleanup efforts. In all but 250 apartments, the E.P.A. cleaned and tested for asbestos only.

Forty-four of the 4,161 apartments, or about one percent, have “not been cleared,” meaning they still have unacceptable levels of asbestos. Some residents living in apartments that have tested positive for asbestos or other dangerous toxins have complained that they have received confusing letters from the E.P.A. Four people have told Downtown Express previously that they received test results showing either elevated levels of lead or asbestos in their apartments. In each case, the E.P.A. offered to reclean the apartment, but the E.P.A. did not alert tenants in the building who did not sign up for the program initially.

Nadler demanded that the E.P.A. widen the scope of its cleaning, by enlarging the coverage area and including more vigorous testing methods. Nadler said that the agency should test in concentric circles moving away from the trade center site to determine how far the contamination extends, Nadler said.

All affected workplaces and residences, including those in Brooklyn or other boroughs, should be cleaned thoroughly, Nadler said. This means that the E.P.A. should test for metals such as lead and other toxins in all apartments, instead of the 250 randomly selected apartments that received an in-depth “wipe test,” Nadler said.

“It’s a lot cheaper to clean this up now than deal with problems down the line,” Nadler said, referring to cancer and other health conditions that could emerge in 15 to 20 years among Lower Manhattan residents and workers.

It’s not too late to take action to prevent further health threats, Nadler and concerned residents said on Saturday.

“The truth is out and things can be done now,” said Jenna Orkin, a member of 9/11 Environmental Action.

The E.P.A. defended its actions in an addendum to the Inspector General report. Writing on behalf of the agency, Marianne Horinko, the acting administrator, said that the report did not take into account the unprecedented nature of the terror attacks and assumed that “somehow ‘business as usual’ should have prevailed” in the aftermath of the disaster.

“E.P.A.’s response was extraordinary, especially when examined in the chaotic context in which we and other governing bodies found ourselves,” Horinko wrote.

Horinko acknowledged that there was room for improvement: “Could things have been done better? Certainly. Were mistakes made? Without a doubt. But like other agencies of government in the wake of this event, E.P.A. has reviewed its response, asked tough questions about its conduct and begun the process of change and improvement.”

Horinko did not mention any specific mistakes in her response.

In keeping with E.P.A. policy, the agency must provide the Inspector General’s office with a written response to its report within 90 days. Nadler and residents said that the agency must acknowledge its shortcomings in detail so that it can be better prepared to handle the next emergency.

“When the next event happens, the government must act responsibly,” said Marc Ameruso, a member of Community Board 1.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district includes most of Lower Manhattan, also blasted the E.P.A.’s response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The E.P.A. should be our environmental guardian and this is government at its worst,” Gerson said in a telephone interview.

Gerson has introduced legislation that would require the city Department of Environmental Protection to collect “statistically and scientifically sound” ground, dust, and air sampling throughout the entire area that was under the trade center dust plume. The results would help the E.P.A. in its cleaning efforts, Gerson said.