Pier 57 pens are called ‘Guantanamo on Hudson’

By Albert Amateau

A prominent civil liberties lawyer and a Transportation Workers Union raised questions yesterday about asbestos and diesel oil contamination at Pier 57, the former bus depot at 17th St. serving since last week as the N.Y.P.D.’s holding pens for people arrested in Republican National Convention protests.

Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Ed Watt, financial secretary of T.W.U. Local 100, called on Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to determine whether asbestos and bus fuel oil are a health hazard to R.N.C. detainees.

Siegel also charged that protestors are being held on the pier without access to lawyers, food or medical attention for 18 to 36 hours in a legal process that ordinarily takes six hours or less. The delay in completing desk-appearance tickets for detainees is part of an attempt “to criminalize dissent” and is intended discourage detainees from returning to protest demonstrations, Siegel said.

Siegel and Watt aired their concerns at a Tuesday news conference across the street from Pier 57. Siegel sent a letter dated Mon. Aug. 30 to Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly about the environmental concerns.

However, Paul J. Brown, deputy police commissioner for Public Information said in a statement on Tuesday that tests the Police Department conducted Monday night “found no problem with air quality at the detainee center on Pier 57.”

In a statement about the treatment of detainees, Brown said, “The main factor in the delay in issuing desk-appearance tickets is the refusal of detainees to identify themselves.” He also said that people arrested are given the opportunity to make telephone calls.

Nevertheless, Andrew Lynn, a videographer who works for Manhattan Neighborhood Cable Network and who was one of 250 arrested during a bicycle demonstration Fri. Aug.27, said at the news conference that he was held for 18 hours at Pier 57 in one of the 30-ft.-by-16-ft. pens made of 10-ft.-high wire fencing that run the length of the pier. After detention on the pier he was moved to a precinct lockup and was not issued a desk-appearance ticket for another nine hours.

The packed pens had only two or three benches, so many detainees had to lie on the floor, which was covered with black oil, Lynn said. “People had rashes from the oil and after 15 or 18 hours they gave us antiseptic for the rashes,” he added. Lynn also said he heard a police officer on duty laugh when a detainee asked to make a phone call.

United for Peace and Justice, the group that sponsored the Aug. 29 protest march, described the detention center on Pier 57 as “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” The group intends to demonstrate in front of the pier at 10 a.m. Wed. Sept. 1 to protest the conditions detainees have to bear.

The 300,000-sq.-ft. pier, completed in 1954, last served as a Transit Authority bus depot a year ago and in June came under the control of the Hudson River Park Trust, which is seeking a developer to transform the pier into a commercial and park destination.

Watt and Jay Bermudez, a T.W.U. official who worked at Pier 57 from 1982 until it closed as a bus depot, said they believed asbestos in the building has long been a health hazard.

Bermudez said that a fire at the pier in January 1995 released asbestos dust that covered virtually everything. “It was all over the cars, on our shoes and clothes,” he said. The abatement that followed only included the area destroyed by the fire, Bermudez added. He also said he doubted that Pier 57 has an operable fire-suppressant system

However, Chris Martin, spokesperson for Hudson River Park, in a statement on Tuesday said, “Asbestos is not considered to be a health problem unless there is an exposure pathway to airborne asbestos.

“Prior to the Police Department occupying the pier, the Trust was informed about the type of construction they would be performing there. None of that construction involved the types of invasive work to floors, walls, pipes or ceilings that could create such exposure. The only parts of Pier 57 where the Trust has observed exposed asbestos are not being used by the police to our knowledge,” Martin said.

Martin acknowledged that oil stains are visible in areas of the Pier 57 floor.

“These are typical of the building’s former use as a bus depot,” he said, adding, “The Trust has no involvement at all in the pier’s operation this week. Our focus has been on working with the Police Department to maintain public access to the bikeway and other park areas as usual.”