E.P.A. skips Council hearing to discuss cleanup plan

By Ronda Kaysen

A City Council hearing on the post-9/11 cleanup of Lower Manhattan lasted well over three hours and included testimony from everyone from city commissioners to elected officials to local residents. The only voice notably absent was the agency at the center of the discussions — the Environmental Protection Agency.

The E.P.A., whose latest testing and cleanup plan for Lower Manhattan residences was criticized when it was unveiled last November, declined to attend the hearing.

“We had advised the E.P.A. to testify, to explain what is going on and to shed light on matters of life and health to our community,” said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, chairperson of the Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, at the start of the hearing. “I am extraordinarily disappointed in their decision.”

The E.P.A. has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent months. Its testing and cleanup plan, the culmination of a 20-month expert panel, was highly criticized by its own panelists and dismissed as scientifically unsound. Last month, a federal judge declared former E.P.A. administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s public comments about the air quality Downtown in the days and weeks after 9/11 “conscience shocking,” opening the door for a class action lawsuit against Whitman and the agency.

Gerson introduced a resolution to the City Council Wednesday rejecting the agency’s cleanup plan as “flawed by omission and flawed by commission.”

The two agencies that did testify — the city Department of Health and the city Department of Environmental Protection — at the Feb. 27 hearing both expressed criticism of the federal agency. “Our concerns [about health risks] have been there from day one,” said D.E.P. deputy commissioner Robert Avaltroni. “We’re disappointed the E.P.A. is not here as well.”

City apartments and offices might still be contaminated with toxic dust four and half years after 9/11, according to Dr. Jessica Leighton, a deputy commissioner for environmental health at the Dept. of Health. “Is there still dust around,” she asked. “I can’t say for sure. Is that dust going to be breathed by people? I can’t say for sure.”

Trade Center dust can contain asbestos, lead, mercury and other carcinogens that have a cumulative effect — the longer a person is exposed to the toxins, the greater the risk of damage. If Trade Center dust remains in apartments, buried in carpets, HVAC systems and behind refrigerators and radiators, each time that dust is stirred, it exposes a person to a potential health threat. In the past few months, several rescue workers who worked on the pile at ground zero have died from causes linked to the dust.

“Tragically there are thousands of people being slowly poisoned because of the negligence of the E.P.A,” U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler, a longtime critic of E.P.A.’s response, testified. But Nadler also reserved criticism for the city, which he said has not been a vocal advocate for the public. “It is intolerable that the city and the state of New York have not joined in demanding that the E.P.A. take responsibility for the residents of New York.”

The new E.P.A. cleanup plan will look only at residences south of Canal St. in Manhattan that were not cleaned in a 2002 and 2003 E.P.A. cleanup effort that critics characterized as inadequate. An earlier version of the cleanup plan would have included workplaces and apartments as far north as Houston St. and in parts of Brooklyn. Only residents who own their apartments or buildings can volunteer their units. The agency says the program is already underway, although no apartments have been tested or cleaned yet.

The agency is reviewing a peer review that criticized some of the science in the plan and recently met with three of the panelists from the Expert Technical Review Panel. The agency is also revisiting its decision to abandon a search for a “signature” in the dust that would distinguish Trade Center dust from ordinary, city dust.

It is not clear if the discussions will affect the current cleanup plan. “At this point it would be premature for me to speculate,” E.P.A. regional administrator Alan Steinberg told Downtown Express last Friday. “It depends on the outcome.” Steinberg expects the agency will reach a conclusion by April.

“Clearly E.P.A. got the message,” said Morton Lippmann, an environmental scientist for New York University and one of three E.P.A. panelists who met with agency officials on Feb. 16. “They’re not closing any doors. They want to do it right and they’re making their best effort.”


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