Police feared Pier 57 toxins during R.N.C., reports show


By Chris Lombardi

As lawsuits proceed in the case of protesters hauled in to Pier 57 during the 2004 Republican National Convention, more than 42 reports filed by New York Police Department officers on the scene indicate they, too, felt they were exposed to diesel dust, harsh solvents, black oil and asbestos.

The reports, obtained under the Freedom of Information Law by the Environmental Justice Law Project, appear consistent both with testimony in the suits by R.N.C. protesters — who are suing the city and Hudson River Park Trust — and the building’s reported condition before 2003, when it was still a bus garage run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Plaintiffs in the suits charge that the Police Department held them for an average of 33 hours at the pier in metal cages atop a floor covered in oily muck, and that the Trust — which loaned the pier to the Police Department for the week and protested when the detentions hit the news — should still bear some responsibility. Right now, the suits are still at the deposition stage, with the 500-plus plaintiffs spending days at the Federal Courthouse Downtown.

“They’re keeping them for eight hours at a time, sometimes,” said Law Project co-founder Martin Stolar.

The hazardous exposure reports from officers who were stationed at Pier 57 — released with all names and badge numbers blacked out — were produced by the N.Y.P.D.’s Occupational Health Nursing Unit (also known as the “sick desk”) during the period covering Sept. 2-24, 2004. Reporting forms like these have been standard in many city agencies for more than 20 years. Many of the Pier 57 officers, perhaps most, may have filled out the forms as a precaution in case of later health problems, especially after they saw the signs throughout the facility saying “Caution” and “Asbestos.” Others, from a close examination of the forms, were already undergoing some discomfort.

Despite limited space on the forms for details from medical staff, and only three boxes to check under “hazards” — “Asbestos,” “Controlled Substance” and “Other” — the essence of what the officers experienced comes through. Most checked the “Asbestos” box, perhaps unsurprisingly, but a fuller picture can be gleaned from what they included under “Other.”

For report #1760 it was “unknown sub-tarry,” #1494 “unknown contaminated air,” for #1997 “asbestos and carbon monoxide,” and for #1659 “black liquid.” Report #1989 provided a list: “sludge, fumes, asbestos, toxic materials.” A report whose number was also redacted said simply: “HAZMAT.” “Carbon dust,” or even just “dust,” were common complaints, while other reports added the word “diesel.” And report #1678, describing an officer in active distress, gave more detail than most:

“MOS (member of service) performed 12 hrs X 8 days at [Pier 57]…. [blacked out] because of sore throat, irritated eyes & chest congestion. Saw PMD [N.Y.P.D. paramedic] 9/4. Was given antibiotics, cough syrup and a puffer,” the latter presumably to help her breathe. Alone among the reports released, #1678 also contained advice about how to protect the police officer and her family from the lingering effects of exposure:

“Work surfaces (desks, tabletops, etc) should be wiped down with a damp cloth. The cloth should then be placed in a plastic bag and then discarded. Keep all washable articles of clothing in a sealed plastic bag until they can be washed in a washer,” the report said. “Launder separately from the rest of the family’s wash. Run through two [2] cycles, then run the washer empty through one [1] cycle.” This advice echoes standard National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health guidelines for exposure to hazardous chemicals known as “aromatic hydrocarbons” that are often included in solvents used to wash buses and transportation facilities.

Mel Peffers, a former Environmental Protection Agency clean-air expert now on staff with the Environmental Defense Fund, called the advice “smart” and completely appropriate. She said that many of the aromatic hydrocarbons used to clean large vehicles are listed on the Centers for Disease Control’s American Toxic Disease Registry. Peffers added that she was quite disturbed about the detention of protesters in such a place, before the building had been certified as free of either asbestos or other toxins.

“For solvents, all exposure routes are significant,” said Peffers. “Respiration can cause long-term breathing difficulties and neurological problems. And dermal, or skin, exposure — depending on how deeply the liquid seeps in — it can enter the blood system.” In that case, she said, “the long-term effects can include cancer.”

The lawsuits against the Trust hinge on plaintiffs’ charge that in August 2004, Pier 57 had not yet been cleared of the conditions that prevailed during its former use as a bus garage. And former transit workers have long described dangerous conditions at what the M.T.A. called “Hudson Depot,” between the asbestos built into the old building, the diesel oil that fueled the buses and the solvents used to clean up the mess.

“I’ve heard horror stories,” said David Katzman, a spokesman for Transport Workers Union Local 100. He said many at Hudson Depot, especially dispatchers and other sedentary workers, worked in close quarters at the pier, and registered a long list of health complaints.

“In the years that I worked there, it became my belief — and it still is my belief — that there was a cluster of cancer cases at that depot,” said James Mahoney, a former dispatcher who now works for T.W.U. Local 100. He described a facility whose attitude toward worker safety was at best spotty.

In the cost-cutting 1980s, Mahoney said, asbestos removal at the pier was half-hearted: “First, they had a company that was doing it properly, with the right equipment. Then suddenly it was a different outfit…and all they were doing was pulling it from the ceilings. They only had these plastic facemasks, and that’s not what you use when you’re cleaning asbestos!” And after the depot was damaged in a January 1995 fire, he said, the M.T.A. repaired and cleaned the building by borrowing M.T.A. workers from as far away as the Bronx, offering extra overtime pay but little hazardous-materials training.

Even normal operations, Mahoney added, were a recipe for exposure: “There were always oil leaks, rivers of oil, in the basement down below, where they washed the buses. A number of chemicals were there, in leaking barrels. It was a mess,” he said.

In addition to the police reports, the Environmental Justice Law Project also obtained the N.Y.P.D.’s own environmental assessment of the pier, which reported this September that “there is not a hazardous condition at Pier 57,” using samples taken long after the 2004 Republican National Convention ended and a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the city and the Trust, in which the city repeatedly promised that the Trust would not be liable for anything happening that week.

Now that the released police reports have been added to the exhibits in the R.N.C. lawsuits, the Environmental Justice Law Project also hopes to build on its success in obtaining them, to argue that all such reports should become public, with all identifying information redacted. If hazard reports in a range of industries became public information, the benefits to both individuals and to community health efforts would be enormous, said Kupferman.

“Stuff like this — chemical exposure, toxics on the job, your kid getting earaches from the paint at school — one person goes through it, and people say it’s just anecdotal. But what if you could get real-life information about who else is complaining about this?” Kupferman asked.

Meanwhile, the Trust is continuing with its plans to redevelop Pier 57, together with its chosen partner, the real estate investment firm The Witkoff Group. Witkoff’s first task, Trust spokesperson Chris Martin said, is yet another environmental assessment, “so we all know what has to be done. But they have committed to us, in writing, to return the pier to a safe condition,” Martin said.

Though the Trust and Martin still declined to comment on the lawsuits, the Trust is throwing considerable resources into the deposition proceedings Downtown. Partners from many white-shoe law firms, such as Proskauer Rose LLC., who have supported the Trust as donors and civic boosters, are also lending attorneys to work on behalf of the city and the Trust, with three such firms appearing pro bono on the counsel list last month.

“They have all the big firms. Here it’s just me, Joel [Kupferman] and the interns,” said Stolar, the Law Project’s co-founder.

Kupferman added wryly that the evidence from the police reports moves away, finally, from earlier stages in the R.N.C. litigation, when videotaped evidence contradicted police testimony. The officers, after all, filed these reports just as their boss, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, was telling CNN that protesters’ descriptions of the pier were “exaggerated.”

Now, just as with the Law Project’s work on behalf of city employees who were exposed to toxins after 9/11, the nonprofit environmental legal team has to make sure the words of these young police officers will not be argued away, said Kupferman.

“We have to go to court now and argue — against the city,” he said, “that during that week, in those difficult circumstances, these police officers were telling the truth.”