E.P.A. clears building despite toxic report

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The Environmental Protection Agency oversaw the cleaning of 114 Liberty St. and cleared the building for re-occupancy despite the presence of toxic dust from the World Trade Center collapse, residents charged last week.

More than two years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, residents of 114 Liberty still have not returned to their homes. An E.P.A. spokesperson said last week that the building’s levels of potential contaminants did not exceed the agency’s health benchmarks, but as a precaution residents should clear away any residual dust by wiping with wet cloths and using HEPA vacuums.

For many residents, the E.P.A.’s response has fallen short of their expectations.

“I feel a bit let down by our federal government,” said Dave Stanke, president of the condo board at 114 Liberty.

Last Tuesday, U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler joined residents of 114 Liberty at City Hall to release a report by an E.P.A. scientist, Cate Jenkins, who analyzed test results from the building and found high levels of asbestos and silica. Jenkins looked at test results from a private firm hired by residents, as well as results from a cleanup supervised by the E.P.A. and conducted by contractors for the city Department of Environmental Protection.

Jenkins, who is based in Washington, D.C., said the E.P.A. is deliberately downplaying risks of trade center toxins to residents.

“If E.P.A. has to go in with moon suits and open up walls of these places now, that puts the lie to their statement early in the first months after 9/11 that all people had to do was use New York City guidelines” such as wet wiping, Jenkins said.

Bonnie Bellow, an E.P.A. spokesperson, said the agency did not dispute any aspect of the private testing company’s report. Nevertheless, Bellow maintained that 114 Liberty St. was safe for re-occupancy based on the results of its inside air tests.

Health risks from asbestos come when it is breathed, Bellow said, although she didn’t directly address whether dust from under the floorboards or other sealed areas could ever enter the air. In all Lower Manhattan apartments that it evaluated as part of its voluntary, post-9/11 cleanup program, the E.P.A. used testing methods that could detect the airborne presence of asbestos down to fibers of 0.5 microns, Bellow said.

“That is quite small,” Bellow said.

Residents of 114 Liberty St. said they feared that asbestos nestled under floorboards or behind walls might one day become airborne. Stanke said that it would not be acceptable for residents to have to worry about recontamination whenever an apartment was undergoing renovations.

Bellow said all residents of older New York City apartments, regardless of their proximity to ground zero, must be vigilant about asbestos during renovations. 114 Liberty St. was constructed about 100 years ago, Jenkins wrote in her report.

Linda Rosenthal, an aide to Nadler, said that it was “cynical” to imply that all New York apartments are dirty, and that Downtown apartments need only to be as clean as apartments in other parts of the city.

Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Mount Sinai, said on Monday that most Lower Manhattan residents have not likely been exposed to enough trade center toxins to significantly increase their risk of cancer 10, 15, or 20 years in the future.

“But we don’t know” for sure, Levin said at a press conference.

Bellow said that the E.P.A. had no plans to conduct any further inspections of 114 Liberty St.

Stanke said that residents of the building would use $7.5 million in insurance funds to make their building livable again. That amount would have to be stretched thin to pay for all the cleaning, testing, and physical repairs to the space, he added, but residents were not expecting any outside help.

“At this point, we’re going to take care of our own building,” Stanke said.


Dr. Stephen Levin said this week that most Lower Manhattan residents were not likely to be at an increased risk for cancer from World Trade Center dust, but he criticized the E.P.A. for declaring the air safe to breathe before it had enough information to make that determination.

Downtown Express photo by Akiko Miyazaki