V.C.F. boundary extension deemed a ‘partial victory’

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | In the days and months after 9/11, West Village resident Helen Gruber, who volunteered at Ground Zero for six months, developed a chronic cough. In the years that followed, she caught seasonal flu and pneumonia more often than usual — to the bewilderment of her doctors.

“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” said Gruber. “Nobody saw anything wrong with my lungs.”

In the mid-2000s, Gruber sought treatment at the W.T.C. medical monitoring and treatment program based at Mount Sinai Medical Center. A physician there diagnosed her with rhinitis and prescribed her medication she takes to this day.

While Gruber’s health problem is likely attributed to her time at Ground Zero, she claims to have been exposed to toxins simply from living in Lower Manhattan.

“The stench came up to here,” Gruber said from her West Village apartment. “We smelled it every single day.”

Gruber and many others that live or work above Canal Street were dismayed to read the finalized regulations of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act’s Victim Compensation Fund — which extended the northernmost boundary to Canal Street, but not to Houston Street or farther north as they had wished.

The V.C.F. parameters now include south of Canal Street, from the Hudson River extending to the intersection of Canal Street and East Broadway. The boundary then cuts north on East Broadway to Clinton Street, and runs east on Clinton Street to the East River — encompassing all of Tribeca, but only part of Chinatown and a small chunk of the Lower East Side.

After reviewing dozens of documents, V.C.F. Special Master Sheila Birnbaum decided to change the borders based on “compelling” evidence that buildings situated north of Reade Street were contaminated by prolonged dust exposure.

“I think we realized there were numbers of people treated at Bellevue [Hospital] between Reade and Canal Street,” said Birnbaum. “Looking at all the material, we felt it made sense to move the geographical line to Canal Street.”

Though more people are now qualified for compensation than they would have otherwise been, ailing residents and workers that live above Canal Street are not automatically eligible for compensation under the revised rules.

“It’s disappointing. I don’t see any reason for them not to have the same boundary as Title I,” said Jason Mansfield, chair of Community Board 2’s environment, public safety and public health committee. Title I, the health portion of the Zadroga bill, offers medical treatment to residents, workers and students up to Houston Street.

“I’d consider it an important victory, albeit a partial one,” said Kimberly Flynn, community co-chair of the W.T.C. health program’s survivor steering committee. “If the federal government is willing to acknowledge that people who were exposed between Canal and Houston Streets who have 9/11-related symptoms should be treated at the federal government’s expense,” she said, “those people should also be entitled to be compensated.”

The Canal St. boundary, Birnbaum countered, “seems to include the vast, vast majority of people.”

“We didn’t have a lot of information that there were people beyond Canal [Street] that were sick,” said Birnbaum. “Wherever you draw the line, there’s going to be someone on the other side of the line. If there are special exceptions in which people [above Canal Street] can establish that they were exposed, we can certainly review the materials.”

The V.C.F. opens to claimants on Monday, Oct. 3.