Ground Zero Community Wants Answers, Cleanup for Lingering 9/11 Contamination

Approaching the one-year anniversary of the White House Council on Environmental Quality's agreement to have an expert panel provide advice on unmet needs related to 9/11 pollution, a coalition sent a letter to EPA pleading for a clear answer on what action the federal government will take to clean up 9/11 contamination and meet the health needs of the people exposed to the pollution.

The letter, from community, tenant, environmental, small business, religious and labor organizations, sets out seven basic principles for cleanup and for addressing long-term health needs.

"The White House forced us to wait 2 years before it would even agree to have an expert panel. Then EPA stalled that expert panel for another year, arguing for absurdly inadequate approaches. As a result, all testing has been put off until some time after Election Day. We can't help but worry what will be left of this process after the election," said Robert Gulack, a New Jersey resident who was exposed to Ground Zero contamination through his job at the Woolworth Building on Broadway and Park Place. "If the federal government is acting in good faith, then EPA can and should give us an answer today."

The request for EPA to adopt the principles was presented formally at the Oct. 5 meeting of the EPA World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel. The White House Council on Environmental Quality had declared its agreement to create that panel on Oct. 27, 2003, as part of negotiations with Senator Hillary Clinton over approval of the nomination of EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt. In her powerpoint presentation at the Oct. 5 meeting, the panel's community liaison, Catherine McVay Hughes, a parent and asthma-educator who lives very close to Ground Zero, urged that the federal agency should make a solid commitment now.

"People are not going to want to open up their homes for testing if they don't also have a firm commitment that if anything is found, it will be cleaned up," Hughes explained.

The letter urges EPA to conduct comprehensive testing for indoor contamination, not only in southern Manhattan but also in neighborhoods of Brooklyn that were covered by the dust cloud. It calls on EPA to commit to clean up contaminated buildings as warranted; assert authority over environmental safety during demolition of 9/11-contaminated structures such as the Deutsche Bank building; and support long-term medical monitoring, and care as needed, for people exposed to the World Trade Center pollution. While EPA has published a proposed design for indoor testing, community representatives note that it falls short of the mark for a credible program. They expressed strong disappointment that EPA had promised to work in partnership with the community, yet did not engage in a dialogue with them before publishing the protocol.

"Community people have invested many hours in these meetings. Sometimes we feel that progress is being made, but then we see some back-sliding," said Suzanne Mattei, executive for the Sierra Club's national field office in New York City. "The bottom line is, we don't know what we have. Is the federal government really going to help these people or not? We don't know."

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said EPA's proposed testing program has very little benefit for people whose workplaces are in Lower Manhattan, because EPA wants to leave the decision to test the workplace up to the employer. "If employees want testing done in their workplace, the employer should not have veto power over the employees' right to know whether their workplace is safe," he insisted.

Paul Stein, Health and Safety chairperson for the New York State Public Employees Federation, Division, 199, said his members, who are employees of the New York State Department of Health, are angry that the federal government is doing "such a poor job of protecting the health of New Yorkers who live and work near the World Trade Center site."

The organizations signing the letter represent many thousands of residents and workers in neighborhoods affected by the dust cloud that penetrated buildings upon the collapse of the towers. They include local resident associations, such as the Independence Plaza North Tenants Association, as well as borough-wide groups such as the Met Council on Housing and statewide groups such as Tenants and Neighbors. Unions of workers concerned about renewed contamination from the pending demolition of the highly contaminated Deutsche Bank building, such as the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, Local 300, the Civil Service Employees Association and Public Employees Federation also joined in the call for a clear answer from the federal government.

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