July 20, 2005 – A New York City-based coalition of labor, community and environmental groups is renewing its call for a more comprehensive testing and cleanup plan for hazardous contaminants still lingering in Lower Manhattan as a result of the collapse of the World Trade Center in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
For over a year, the coalition has negotiated and clashed with the Environmental Protection Agency over the scope and logistics of a plan to address potential indoor contamination from pollutants released in the disaster, which include lead, asbestos and other harmful substances.
The EPAâ€™s most recent draft of the sampling plan, finalized on June 30, provides a blueprint for sampling the dust in buildings to determine the need for more extensive testing and cleaning procedures. But it faces criticism from the community for falling short in both assessing the contamination and allowing for public input in the process.
Under the proposed plan, a building would warrant full cleanup only if it met criteria for contamination according to a complex formula based on the average contamination level for the entire building. The coalition has warned that if contamination is unevenly distributed within a particular building, this method could "water down" the assessment by averaging out individual test results.
In the coalitionâ€™s public statement following the release of the preliminary draft sampling plan in May, Lisa Baum, a safety and health representative of the District Council 37 union, said: "There is no public health reason to ignore the risk indicated by heavy contamination in one dwelling unit, just because another dwelling unit does not contain harmful levels â€¦The whole building should be cleaned if significant contamination is found."
The coalition has furthermore criticized the EPAâ€™s decision not to consider test results from so-called "inaccessible areas," including spaces "behind refrigerators and rarely moved furniture," in determining whether a site warrants cleanup.
Another point of contention is the EPAâ€™s proposal to base plans for testing and cleanup largely on whether the contamination is certified to be from the World Trade Center, matching a set of pre-defined characteristics.
The coalition questioned the science behind these criteria. "EPA is proposing to define [World Trade Center] dust so narrowly that much of the contamination may slip through its fingers," stated Stanley Mark, an attorney with the immigrant advocacy group Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Labor advocates have warned that because program participation would be "voluntary," employers could override the concerns of workers and simply refuse to grant EPA agents access to their properties. In response, the EPA has stated that it would consider "using persuasion and enlisting the support of the community leadership to gain access to buildings."
Since 9/11, the Lower Manhattan community has condemned the EPA for ignoring health threats linked to the Ground Zero site, which exposed workers and residents to inordinate levels of pulverized debris and industrial chemicals. The current planning process is intended to address environmental hazards overlooked in an earlier cleanup program in 2002, which the community denounced as inadequate.
In the summary report of an EPA technical review panel meeting in May, panel member Morton Lippmann, an environmental scientist, commented that "EPA is making a good faith effort" and, with limited resources, "cannot possibly do everything that the community would like it to do."
Nonetheless, at the following panel meeting in July, Suzanne Mattei, New York City executive for the Sierra Club, reiterated the communityâ€™s demands that the planning process and cleanup efforts be more transparent and responsive to crucial public health needs. "The unresolved matter of indoor contamination and cleanup," she said, "has been part of the story of governmental failings in the aftermath of September 11th."