Long after 9-11, some people say the dust is still making them sick. Now they want the EPA to do something about it.

"We've pushed and pushed and gotten nowhere," Nadler says. "The only time we've gotten anywhere is because Hillary pushed for it."

Indeed, as advocates like to point out, it was Senator Clinton's willingness to fight the good fight that spawned the EPA panel. Back in 2003, in response to the inspector general's report, she wrote a letter to the White House, calling for immediate testing. She could make that kind of demand, since she sits on a Senate committee that oversees the EPA. Clinton blocked President Bush's nominee to head the agency for 45 days, agreeing to lift her "hold" only after the White House agreed to have the EPA set up the advisory panel.

"New Yorkers deserve a firmer assurance that they are safer in their homes," the senator said when the EPA finally formed the body, in March 2004, "and I am hopeful that this panel will lead to that point."

A 9-11 victim: Alex Sanchez fell ill after cleaning office buildings downtown.
photo: Steven Sunshine
A 9-11 victim: Alex Sanchez fell ill after cleaning office buildings downtown.

So were advocates. As they see it, the panel has given them a chance not just to voice concerns about residual toxins, but to keep the EPA in check. Without it, there'd be no talk of testing, let alone cleanup. Still, the process has turned into a protracted fight, with advocates poring over proposals, criticizing the same main issues. Since January, the sampling plan has undergone three revisions. Panel members expect a fourth soon.

"We have gone back and forth," says Micki Siegel de Hernandez, a union representative who sits on the panel and considers the plan "quite inadequate." The struggle, she says, has left residents and workers "feeling as if [EPA officials] haven't been listening."

The EPA's Brown insists the agency has made a good-faith effort. "We're doing everything we can to make sure it's safe to live and work in Lower Manhattan." And some panel members agree, saying it'd be unfair to paint the EPA as hostile. The panel, they contend, has made the plan more responsive to the community.

When panelists first convened, the EPA had proposed testing for re-contamination, not for residual toxic dust. That meant excluding every place that hadn't been cleaned up before—arguably, the places most in need of testing. Panelists shot that idea down, they say, after resounding community complaints.

What's more, the original plan ignored workplaces. Now, it won't. Originally, it tested only for asbestos. Now, it includes such toxins as lead and fiberglass. Originally, it focused only on the blocks south of 14th Street, then Canal Street. Now, it extends up to Houston Street, and over to parts of Brooklyn. Brown suggests the boundaries could expand further. "If the data suggests we need to go further, we will," he says.

Even Clinton's aides say the panel has resulted in a better plan. Philippe Reines, the senator's spokesperson, explains that if the panel had stuck with the initial proposal—which reflected the agreement between Clinton and the White House—testing would have been limited. "It was the senator's hope all along that once the panel got started the EPA would look more broadly at World Trade Center air quality issues," he adds, "and that has happened."

Still, the plan has shortcomings. As it stands, critics tick off a litany of technical problems. Like how the plan would test oft used areas, such as countertops, rather than hidden ones, such as ceiling beams. Or how it would rely on what they see as improper methods to collect dust on soft surfaces and in ventilation systems.

By far, the biggest complaint has to do with the so-called "signature"—or as Mattei says, "some magic substance that's a marker of WTC dust." The signature consists of slag wool, mostly, an insulation used in the towers. Under the plan, if the EPA detects slag wool, it'll clean up. If not, it won't. Critics contend it's foolish to reconstruct a signature years after the Trade Center collapse; it's more foolish to require one to clean up.

Another thorny issue deals with access. Currently, the plan would select 150 buildings to test if owners agree to participate. That leads to dilemmas: Employees can't volunteer their offices; tenants can't volunteer their lobbies.

Even panel members find the complaints reasonable. The problem, says Markowitz of Queens College, who sits on the board, is that many issues come down to policy, not science. To wit: the debate over the plan's voluntary nature. "We've tossed it around for months," he explains, yet it has nothing to do with dust particles. So panelists have little influence in the outcome.

"Ultimately," Markowitz says, explaining his frustration over the fight, "if we don't get to some action on the ground, then I don't think we've served any useful purpose."

Evidently, Senator Clinton would agree. Over the past 17 months, she has remained a force behind the panel, working quietly to move deliberations forward. When advocates have bumped up against the EPA, they've turned to her for help. Explains Siegel de Hernandez, "It's easy for the EPA to discount us; it's not as easy to discount Senator Clinton."

Last June, the senator met with critics to discuss the plan. They asked her to intervene. And so, on June 29, she wrote a letter to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, highlighting ways the plan "does not go far enough." In July, her office stepped in again, arranging a negotiation session between the EPA, panelists, and critics. That meeting is expected to happen later this month. Her staff says they're hoping a deal can be hashed out.

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