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EPA Ombudsman Opens Can of Worms in NY

The EPA Ombudsman held a hearing in Manhattan for residents and workers worried that the government wasn't listening to their concerns about WTC contamination, but most of the invited speakers didn't show up.

What do you do when you throw a party and the guests of honor don''t show up? If you''re the ombudsman for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in New York, you have the party anyway.

EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin and Hugh Kaufman, the EPA ombudsman''s lead investigator at the World Trade Center, held a hearing on Saturday for people living and working in Lower Manhattan. the purpose of the hearing was to allow the residents and workers to ask questions of the experts who have studied the environmental and health impact of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Some 200 people showed up, but none of the bureaucrats Kaufman invited.

"We invited the leadership of the EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Geological Survey, the governor''s office, state agencies, the mayor''s office and city agencies, but none came," announced Kaufman. "This is the first time this has happened in this type of hearing."

The lack of participants from EPA, FEMA and state and city agencies didn''t stop the other attendees from speaking out.

An industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) pointed out that early public statements by EPA appear to ignore or contradict information that was readily available to the agency at the time.

"EPA asserted on its Web site on Sept. 21, ''City residents are not being exposed to dangerous contaminants,''" said NYCOSH''s David Newman. "It''s common knowledge extensive quantities of sprayed-on asbestos-containing fireproofing was present in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse"

He also noted that EPA collected 143 bulk dust samples throughout lower Manhattan in the first days after Sept. 11 and found that 76 percent had detectable levels of asbestos. Of those samples, 34 percent contained greater than 1 percent asbestos by weight, the regulatory definition of asbestos-containing material.

Thomas Cahill, a professor at the University of California-Davis, said he hopes EPA will test for ultra-fine particles. The Detection and Evaluation of Long-range Transport of Aerosols (DELTA) Group at the University of California-Davis analyzed the dust produced by the collapse of the WTC and found that parts of Lower Manhattan were contaminated by a variety of toxic substances, including highest levels of metals ever recorded in the United States.

The group also discovered that most of the respirable particulate matter was smaller than 2.5 microns, a size that can present serious health risks but is not regulated or monitored by EPA.

Newman noted that data taken from buildings at the World Trade Center found the possible presence of arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, ethane, barium, lead, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, cadmium, mercury, chloroform, chlordane and chromium.

"The message sent out by EPA was that there was no cause for concern and in many instances, workers did not receive specific instruction about personal protective equipment, including types of respirators and filters appropriate for the contaminants to which they were exposed," Newman said. "Respirator use even today among some Ground Zero workers and among most Lower Manhattan cleanup workers remains at unacceptably low and unsafe levels."

Residents who attended the meeting voiced their frustration, many complaining that their apartments are basically unlivable, but that if they choose to move out, they must high penalties to their landlords. One resident said she and her husband cleaned up the common areas of their apartment building and their own apartment using their vacuum cleaner, but their landlord refused to clean the air ducts in the building, which shower them with more dust. They plan to move.

Prior to the meeting, Robert Martin, the EPA ombudsman, threatened to tell attendees, "Residents, workers and Ground Zero platform visitors should wear respirators because of toxic air around the World Trade Center site and it would take multibillions of dollars to do what needs to be done in Manhattan."

Although he did not say that at the meeting, Martin still seems to be in trouble with his boss. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has ordered Martin''s office to become part of the EPA Inspector-General''s Office, a move Martin claims is being made to silence him. The matter now lies in federal court, where a judge issued an injunction against the move.

In further WTC news, Whitman, responding to pressure from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), agreed to establish an indoor air task force to evaluate air quality in Lower Manhattan.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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