The Dust May Never Settle

How Dangerous Was That Dark Cloud Hanging Over Manhattan?

Beyond safety gear is the question of how much exposure to asbestos is too much. Moline contended that "a one- or two-day exposure (without proper protective gear), if not followed by repeated exposures, does not pose substantial risks."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency Web site answers its own question of "How much exposure does one need to develop an asbestos-related illness?" by saying, "It depends on the individual, just like smoking." Regardless, the EPA says asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma "do not develop immediately; it may be 20 years or more before symptoms appear."

That's plenty of time for workers to encounter hazards in other projects, or even in daily life, making future legal claims difficult to substantiate if the rescue workers themselves become victims much later in life. And the momentum that in 2001 lifted up the workers as heroes entitled to swift and full compensation may have faded by 2031.

A pall over Manhattan
photo by Michael Kamber
A pall over Manhattan

A spokesman for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association declined to comment on the issue, saying, "We don't know anything yet."

The history of the towers' construction—and the use of asbestos—is well documented. And the Port Authority may be the last entity standing to sue if decades from now any asbestos illnesses stemming from the catastrophe take hold, says Robert Gordon, a partner with Weitz and Luxenberg, a leading player in asbestos litigation.

Because so many asbestos suppliers to the construction of the World Trade Center are already on financial life support with Chapter 11 bankruptcy, "there will be no one left to sue even if you could identify which company's asbestos products you were exposed to, and you can't," Gordon said.

The impact on the health of the harbor will be more apparent and sustained, but environmentalists may have to be willing to make sacrifices. The bustling wharfs of Lower Manhattan have been turned into parkland, a postindustrial benefit lauded by all. Dredging stopped in large sections of the Hudson River Park to let breeding grounds and small shellfish return, and piers have been left barren for nature to repossess. Walkways are lined with decorative cleats and bollards, artifacts from its maritime heyday.

"I applaud everything done on that park," said Captain William Sherwood, president of the New York Sandy Hook Pilots Association, the group responsible for guiding ships into the harbor. "It's a marvel to Manhattan. But it would be good to have some functional pieces of nautical gear as well."

New York learned the price of that luxury when, in the wake of the twin towers' collapse, only two working fireboats were on active duty. The John Jay Harvey, a well-maintained museum piece kept off Chelsea, was sent into action. But fireboats, which shift power from engines to pumps when on the scene, need to tie up so the hoses' thrust doesn't push them away. The John Jay Harvey, like many other emergency vessels, was forced to tie up to a tree on the promenade. Park officers later chastised boat operators for damaging trees and railings, and ordered them off.

"At the time," Sherwood recalled, "there weren't too many people sympathetic to the concerns of the parks department."

The waterfront itself, built largely on landfill, is weak too, he noted. There were many times in the rescue effort when workers feared that the ground beneath trucks would give when they were pumped full of water and fuel from barges just offshore.

The precarious dance along the seawall might have been avoided if the larger of the more than 100 vessels participating in the effort had places to pull into.

Many of the problems were raised during an emergency harbor operations meeting Thursday. "It was painfully apparent," said Sherwood, "that although there were a number of ferry slips available, a good portion of this was out of commission in relatively short order." And bigger boats had few ways of getting in and out of Manhattan.

Environmentalists who work from boats know the problem well. "If somebody had decided to bomb the east side of Manhattan, the UN, we would have been S.O.L., shit out of luck," said Andy Mele, executive director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., a nonprofit environmental group formed in 1966 by folksinger Pete Seeger.

Sherwood agreed, noting that on much of the East Side, roadways have created a concrete wall that cuts ships off from the street grid. "It stands to reason to accept that Manhattan is an island and that at some time it's going to be serviced by vessels, not just in a disaster, so you should make it receptive to vessels," Sherwood said.

Already the southern end of the Hudson River Park has been dredged so that barges can carry away debris. That would have been unthinkable three weeks ago. In an emergency, ferries would have an easier time docking in that embayment, south of Pier 25, than the New York Waterways' nearby ferry station, which is exposed to current and is difficult to maneuver into.

"I think that some limited dredging for emergency purposes is viable," Mele conceded. "Nobody ever imagined that we'd have to plan for something like [the WTC attack], and that was clearly an oversight."

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