EPA Announces Lower Manhattan Cleanup Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), apparently going back on its own policy, says it will take responsibility for indoor air testing and clean-up of residential dwellings near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), apparently going back on its own policy, says it will take responsibility for indoor testing and clean-up of residential dwellings near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Yesterday, EPA, as well as other federal, state and city agencies, released a comprehensive plan to ensure that apartments impacted by the collapse of the World Trade Center have been properly cleaned. The plan - covering Manhattan residential units south of Canal Street and the Manhattan Bridge approach, river to river - was developed by the multi-agency Task Force on Indoor Air in Lower Manhattan created by EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

EPA, New York City, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all played roles in developing the plan, which includes:

  • Cleanups of residential units on request, using certified contractors
  • Follow-up testing for asbestos in the indoor air
  • Testing-only for asbestos in the indoor air for requesting households
  • Availability of HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter vacuums
  • Establishment of a hotline to provide information and take cleanup and testing requests (expected to be in place by June 1)
  • Distribution of health and cleanup information
  • Professional cleanup of remaining unoccupied, uncleaned buildings

"We understand the concerns of Lower Manhattan residents and we know that they are looking to us for reassurance," said Jane M. Kenny, the EPA regional administrator for the area. "While we cannot undo the events of September 11, we can provide the assurance that people''s homes have been cleaned properly. While the scientific data about any immediate health risks from indoor air is reassuring, people should not have to live with uncertainty about their futures."

EPA''s efforts come almost eight months too late, according to many residents and workers in the area. (EPA claimed the responsibility for testing indoor air belonged to the New York department of health.) They complain they''ve already cleaned up their homes and workplaces and been exposed to whatever hazardous materials that were released by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Are they kidding?" questioned one Manhattan resident who lives and works in the area covered by the plan. "I think this plan is a lot like locking the door of the chicken coop after the fox has killed the chickens. We asked them for help months ago and got nothing. So we cleaned everything up ourselves back in September. At this point, what can they do for me, except tell me what I already know; that there''s asbestos in my apartment. Why did they decide to do this now?"

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), seems to agree with those sentiments. He said his agency is "pleased that the EPA has decided to accept responsibility for protection of residents of Lower Manhattan," but added, "It is a shame that these measures were not taken at a time when they could have prevented the heavy exposure to the toxic dust that covered lowered Manhattan. For nearly eight months the EPA has denied that it has authority to protect people from exposure to toxic substances indoors."

NYCOSH is a coalition of unions and health professionals, and has been outspoken in its criticism of EPA''s handling of residents'' and workers'' exposure concerns in Lower Manhattan. Shufro pointed out that yesterday''s announcement was a reversal of EPA''s policy. "Now the EPA is taking responsibility for protecting Lower Manhattan residents - an action which it could have taken months ago," he added.

FEMA will provide funds to hire certified cleanup contractors for residents who wish to have their homes professionally cleaned. EPA will conduct follow-up testing for asbestos in the indoor air after the cleanups are completed. Upon request, the Agency will provide the option of testing-only for residents who do not want their apartments cleaned. If (and only if) those residences are found to have asbestos, the occupant can then request professional cleaning.

"FEMA strongly supports the EPA and New York City''s efforts to take immediate action aimed at alleviating concerns over environmental conditions in Lower Manhattan," said Joseph F. Picciano, acting regional director of the FEMA Region, "We are pleased to be able to fully fund this initiative."

New York City will provide HEPA vacuums to residents, including those whose apartments were professionally cleaned, who wish to do their own cleaning on an ongoing basis. Requests for testing or cleaning will be taken through an EPA hotline that will be set up within several weeks.

EPA will collect samples of some pollutants associated with the collapse of the World Trade Center in apartments that have not been impacted. The agency will use the data to determine pre-existing or "background" levels in interior spaces in New York City. The agency is also preparing to test various cleanup techniques in a still-unoccupied building near the World Trade Center site to confirm their effectiveness. EPA will provide health and cleanup information to all residents through the hotline and on its Web site.

In addition, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will supervise the cleaning of a small group of heavily impacted buildings that have remained unoccupied since September 11. Some of these buildings have not been cleaned thoroughly; most have not been cleaned at all. Worker safety during this cleanup will be coordinated with OSHA.

In addition, DEP has begun contacting building owners to initiate the cleanup of residual debris on rooftops and building facades in Lower Manhattan. Finally, the city is developing a database of the results of samples taken indoors and outdoors by federal, state and local agencies as well as building owners and contractors.

"This is a huge task," said Kenny, "But I can assure you that we will not consider our job complete until residents and the business community of Lower Manhattan have regained a sense of comfort in the place that they call home."

For its part, NYCOSH complains EPA''s plan lacks any provision for oversight from outside the same government agencies that they claim "have shirked their responsibility" for the past 34 weeks. "We believe the plan must include the appointment of an independent advisory committee, with the authority to intervene if government agencies are not acting to protect public health, including representatives of tenants, workers, students and elected officials," Shufro said.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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